DENVER — If you’re whipping up your morning smoothie and adding a spoon of your favorite protein powder, here’s something to think about.
What exactly is in that powder?
The Denver-based Clean Label Project tested dozens of the most popular protein powders and shakes and found some potentially dangerous contaminants.
“What we concern ourselves with are things not really regulated," said Executive Director Jackie Bowen. “Industrial environmental contaminants and toxins like heavy metals, lead, arsenic, mercury. Also persistent pesticides and antibiotic residues, things that have a latent health effect of 15 to 20 years before they become evident.”
Clean Label Project teamed up with independent third-party chemistry laboratory, Ellipse Analytics. They tested some of the popular brands of protein powders sold in stores and on Amazon. You can see the complete results of the Clean Label Project protein powder study here.
Among the key findings:
Plant-based protein powders had some of the highest levels of environmental contaminants like arsenic, lead and mercury. It’s possible that the plants were grown in soil that contained high levels of these metals.
The tests also found chocolate-based protein powders had higher levels of heavy metals. Bowen says recent toxicology studies on chocolate show that the cacao plant has a tendency to pull more cadmium from soil.
Another concerning finding was that over half of the protein powders tested had evidence of BPA, which in recent years was removed from most consumer product packaging, because it’s a known endocrine disruptor.
So why use a protein powder at all? Dr. Inigo San Millan, the Director of the CU Sports Medicine and Performance Center, says protein powders can be a great nutritional supplement for recreational athletes or elderly people who may have trouble getting enough protein in their diets.
Whey isolate protein is among the best quality, containing all 9 essential amino acids. But he says whey concentrate can be lower quality.
“The concentrate can contain other stuff,” says Dr. San Millan. “The FDA doesn’t regulate this, so sometimes the protein powders, they might come in bulk from China for example, and who knows what’s in that protein,” he says.
Clean Label project found the whey-based protein powders were among the better-performing brands in their study. Egg-based protein powders also performed well, but there are not as many egg-based powders on the market.
The brand Vega was the lowest-scored brand overall with 1.2 stars. Vega makes exclusively plant-based protein powders. Eleven of their products tested came back wih the highest amount of arsenic, mercury, cadmium and lead.
Vega released a statement to Denver7:
We have been made aware of a recent report released by the Clean Label Project on protein powders. We were surprised by the presented conclusions. At Vega the trust and safety of our consumers is our top priority.
Plants absorb naturally occurring minerals from the soil which can be reflected in the final product. Our robust Quality Assurance programs ensure our products are compliant with our own rigorous internal standards, as well as all government regulations.
We are proud that Vega products are made with only real, whole food plant-based ingredients condensed into one nutrient-dense scoop. No artificial or synthetic ingredients are used in our products.
We have not seen the raw data on which Clean Label Project based their report, or the full methodology they used, so we can’t comment on this particular report at this point in time. We however want to reassure our consumers that we test every single lot of Vega protein to ensure our products are safe, compliant and nutrient-dense, and meet our high quality standards.
Options besides protein powders
Protein is, of course, a critical dietary component. Dr. San Millan says those with type 2 diabetes do better on lower carbohydrate, high protein diets. Athletes, weight lifters, and people who exercise intensely may also need a higher protein content in their diet. Most protein powders offer high quality protein, are convenient, and easy to digest. But there are other ways to ensure your diet has adequate protein.
“A very good quality of protein is anything related to milk, cheese or yogurt. Rice and beans, the combination of rice and beans it gives a very good source of protein,” says Dr. San Millan.
Jackie Bowen says the Clean Label Project study is not meant to discourage people from consuming protein powders. She hopes people will use the study as a guideline, and will be empowered to ask questions of the companies that make protein powders.
“Some people have multiple protein powders, sometimes before a workout, sometimes after a workout, every day as part of their breakfast,” says Bowen. “So when you look at that and you look at these populations that care so much about their health , I just think it’s important to factor in some of these evolving consumer expectations when it comes to food safety.”
Several other companies whose products were tested by Clean Label Project released the following responses to Denver7:
Garden of Life:
“We will continue to dig into the methodology of this recent study. Heavy metals are naturally occurring in the environment and found in whole foods. Garden of Life has created relationships with organic farmers to ensure our whole foods-based products are fully traceable. Our proteins are the cleanest, most thoroughly tested, third-party inspected and certified products available on the market. Certified USDA Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified seals offer our most credible means of substantiation. We conform to all safety and quality measures, including rigorous California Prop 65 standards. We are open, transparent, and most of all, clean.”
Heavy metals are naturally occurring in many fruits and vegetables that grow in the ground. Because of this, plant-based protein powders will always have traceable amounts of heavy metals in them, particularly when compared with whey proteins. That said, we want to make sure this concept is not blown out of proportion. When comparing the heavy metals found in Sunwarrior protein powders to real, whole vegetables and fruits, the Cadmium found in Sunwarrior is 76% less than a cup of spinach, the Lead found in Sunwarrior is 68% less than an average size avocado, and the Arsenic found in Sunwarrior is 47% less than an average size peach.
Because our proteins come entirely from organic plants, we will never be able to fully eradicate heavy metals in our supplements. And the same thing holds true for our competitors in the plant-based protein space. But rest assured, Sunwarrior takes great pride in knowing and thoroughly vetting our sources to produce quality proteins that are not only safe to consume by EU, FDA and WHO standards, but are also Certified Organic, Non-GMO Project Verified.
Isopure/ Optimum Nutrition/ABB Performance:
Isopure products are manufactured in accordance with Good Manufacturing Practices ("GMPs") established by the US Food and Drug Administration ("FDA"). Further, our production facilities pass rigorous independent quality control audits that are certified by NSF International – a world leader in standards development, product certification, and risk management for public health and safety – to ensure that our products are developed and manufactured to meet the highest quality and food safety standards.
Isopure carefully selects its vendors via a comprehensive evaluation program to ensure that it is supplied with only premium raw materials. All vendors must provide a Certificate of Analysis for each raw material it supplies as a continued measure of quality and these certificates are then verified through random in-house and independent laboratory testing. Further, Isopure's finished products are tested by accredited third-party laboratories to ensure their safety and stability as well as their compliance with label claims.
Simply put, Isopure's products are manufactured and labeled in compliance with all applicable food safety laws and regulations and can continue to be safely consumed by our valued Isopure consumers.