Protein Wars – Is Your Protein Powder TOXIC?

So apparently I stirred the pot a little bit on Facebook the other day when I posted this picture of the results from the Consumer Reports magazine test for heavy metals in 15 popular protein powders.

And I started a very interesting yet friendly debate with my friends & colleagues Kelechi Opara, Nathane Jackson, Max Wettstein, and Aric Sudicky, plus a few others.

Before I get into the meat of this post, let me just say that the four guys I listed above really know their stuff and I respect them a great deal. So if you are on Facebook, friend them up and ask them questions. They are always willing to help and offer great health, fitness, and nutritional advice. All four of these guys are world class fitness models, knowledgeable trainers, and even better people.

But I digress…

In case you were unaware, this past July, Consumer Reports magazine tested 15 protein powders for levels of the following 4 heavy metals:

  1. Lead
  2. Arsenic
  3. Mercury
  4. Cadmium

Out of the 15 products tested, the following (which are bolded in the picture above) exceeded the U.S. Pharmocopeia (USP) suggested limits for safety:

EAS Myoplex Original Rich Dark Chocolate (ready to drink liquid): 16.9 arsenic, 5.1 cadmium
Muscle Milk chocolate powder: 12.2 arsenic, 5.6 cadmium, 13.5 lead, 0.7 mercury
Muscle Milk Vanilla Cream: 12.2 lead

* Amounts in micrograms

Considering the daily limits for toxic metals are: (Arsenic: 15 ug, Lead: 10 ug, Cadmium:5 ug, Mercury: 15 ug) I found the Consumer Report results to be quite disturbing.

You don’t have to be a scientist or a doctor to know that these metals can cause major damage and be poisonous at high levels.

That’s a no brainer.

It is sort of funny, but anytime anything like this comes out everyone seems to panic…and then an angry mob forms. But you have to ask yourself, are you looking at it from both sides of the coin? Are you being objective? Did you do the necessary research to get a complete and accurate picture of the full situation so that you can make an informed decision based on the facts?

Tom Venuto guest blogged about toxic protein powder last July, and said :

I think this is mostly a non-issue and don’t think the report is reason to panic.

Consumer Reports is a favorite publication for many people researching purchases of cars, electronics and appliances. They were probably well-intentioned in their protein article (although who knows what underlying biases might be there).

In the future, however, I’d like to see these types of tests performed under scientific scrutiny and get the results published in a peer reviewed journal.

This way, we can review the test results, read about the experimental methods and get the evidence-based facts about protein requirements and contaminant safety standards, rather than depend on journalists whose usual job is comparing brands of toasters.

Here are a few questions I had regarding the study…

First of all I am wondering who the lab was that performed the test. What are its accreditation qualifications? Is the lab qualified to conduct lab tests for heavy metals in nutritional products and dietary supplements? What was the sample size…the detection limit…what test methods were used…where is the quality control?

I would also have to ask what sort of analytics they ran, what  instrumentation was used for the report, and what was the basis of their risk assessment.

That is just the analyst and skeptic in me coming out…after all I did study Economics in college. I often see the world in numbers and graphs. I question assumptions, I search for bias. I just can’t help myself. I guess you can call me a Renegade.

With that being said…I have done my fair share of studies and statistical analysis to know that there is usually a decent amount of bias, number skewing, and false assumptions involved. That’s just how it goes. Sometimes you have to take studies and “research” with a grain of salt.

Personally, I don’t think that these results tell us very much…after all…only 15 protein powders were tested…but the important question to me is, what are the potential long term effects of putting toxic metals, even at low grade doses into the human body? I’m not a chemist or a doctor so I can’t say for sure…but you don’t need a specialized degree to know that toxic metals can potentially wreak havoc on the human body. Even the aluminum in deodorant has shown to be linked to Alzheimer’s and Dementia. So just because a product is “approved” doesn’t always mean it is safe.

whey protein powder

My buddy Kelechi made a great point when he commented and said: “It should be noted that just because a protein powder is not on the list doesn’t mean it was “good” it just means it was not tested. On the same tangent,  just because a protein powder is on this list does not mean it failed.”

And he shared the following rebuttal from Alan Aragons:

A lot of people have asked me for my opinion of the infamous Consumer Reports (CR) July 2010 article on the supposed dangers (and relative uselessness) of protein supplements. For the most part I’ve responded like, “The city air is worse for you, so either move to the country or just relax & don’t sweat the small stuff.”

However, when I was contacted with this same question by Nick, I thought to myself, “Holy crap, this is Nick Fricking Tumminello…it’s time to get serious.” . Let’s take a look at the danger part first. An important thing to consider is that Consumer Reports is not the end-all authority; it’s merely a single resource to be viewed as critically as any other.

No information should be taken on blind faith (even mine!). An early example of CR’s fallibility was a dog food comparison in their February 1998 issue. Iams (one of the companies under CR scrutiny) presented proof that CR mismeasured various nutrient levels. Subsequently, CR published a correction the following month.

There are other examples of CR’s mistakes in other industries, but suffice it to say that CR has steered clear of testing dog foods since this 1998 debacle. Assuming that they are the final word on food safety testing would be a hasty move. . In response to CR’s recent protein supplement article, Greg Pickett, founder of Cytosport (maker of Musclemilk), made the valid point that, “…it must not be overlooked that the substances tested by Consumer Reports are naturally occurring in the environment, and it would be uncommon, if not impossible, not to detect the trace amounts reportedly found in any agricultural product, such as dairy products, fruits and vegetables.” [1] .

Also noted by Cytosport, CR slickly based its calculations of the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) permitted daily exposure limits on a bodyweight of 50 kg or 110 lbs [2]. Using the extreme low-end of adult bodyweight makes it easy to cook up a gripping tale and claim that the amounts exceed safety limits.

Optimum Nutrition (maker of Gold Standard Whey & Platimum Hydrowhey) posted a response comparing the lead, arsenic, and cadmium content of more than 3-dozen ’regular’ foods with the protein powders tested by CR. The facts put things into perspective really quick. Many of these commonly consumed foods absolutely blow away the heavy metal content of the protein powders.

Here are some of the commonly consumed foods as shown by Optimum Nutrition in their response to CR (even though Optimum Nutriotion passed) whose heavy metal content dwarfs protein powders:

Instead of selecting a few examples that stick out to me, I’d encourage anyone to have a look at the entire list, and then relax a little about your protein supps [3]. I personally don’t see any compelling reason to sacrifice the convenience of incorporating protein powder to meet your daily requirements.

Now, let’s take a look at another protein-related claim made in the same issue. In an article titled, “How much protein?” CR quotes a nutritionist saying, “The body can only break down 5 to 9 grams of protein per hour, and any excess that is not burned for energy is converted to fat or excreted, so it’s a ridiculous waste to be recommending so much more than you really need.”

In short, this is simply a load of bunk prone to misleading people into thinking that anything beyond 5-9 grams of protein per hour will go to waste. I have no idea where this figure was pulled, but my guess is from somewhere that the sun don’t shine. For an in-depth look at the topic of protein consumption per meal, I’ve provided a link to a recent article of mine [4].

Suffice it to say that the idea that protein dosing per meal should be limited to [insert your favorite mythical number here] is usually based on a gross misunderstanding of how the body works - combined with an unawareness of what’s been demonstrated in research. Those who choose to meet their protein needs with 2-3 meals will assimilate it just as effectively as those who get their allotment over 4-6 meals.

Digestion/absorption is an efficient process whose duration varies according to the size of the dose (our digestive system is way smarter than we give it credit for). Therefore, individual preference should ultimately dictate protein dosing per meal. Don’t you love it when simplicity wins?

Final Thoughts:

Viewing this very controversial topic from both sides will definitely help you form an objective opinion about protein powder supplements. That way you can look at all of the evidence and decide what is best for you. Honestly I wasn’t all that shocked when I first saw this study published. The results were alarming, sure…but were they conclusive, not really. There are just too many missing variables for me to see anything conclusive.

On the flip side of that…

If you have read The 6 Pack Secret you know that I firmly believe in eating whole, fresh, and pure foods that come from the ground and avoiding most, if not all, man made foods because at the end of the day, real food is always better for you than any sort of man made supplement or powder. Anything man made is likely to contain impurities, that’s just how the game works.  Protein powder, by definition, is a man made “food”. Hopefully though, the toxic metal levels in our protein powder supplements aren’t high enough to do much damage, but that is tbd.

Also, there are of course many “commonly consumed foods” that contain toxic levels of heavy metals but looking at the chart above I really don’t see a single item that I would regularly eat myself ( i do use whey several times daily) or personally recommend anyone eat if they wanted to be “healthy”.

My guess is that the vegetables on the list are likely not being grown in a manner that I would define as “whole, pure, and fresh” (organic or locally grown) but of course I am just throwing out assumptions here. For all I know those could have been canned veggies. Again, I am not an expert in that field so I can’t comment on the toxic metal levels in soil, crops, etc. I can just throw out a best guess assumption as a consumer.

The fact is that the majority of our society consume protein powder supplements in VERY LARGE quantities, and if you are doing that you could be significantly increasing your exposure to many toxic metals. So if you are pounding 3-4 protein shakes per day or 21-28 shakes per week, you may be in the high risk category.

Also, since most people are quick to eat canned tuna, nuke foods in their microwaves, and consistently eat impure foods from non-organic sources because it is simple, quick, and easy, they are undoubtedly increasing their risk of heavy metal poisoning. So if your diet is not clean and you are eating processed, non-natural foods you can also expose yourself to even HIGHER doses of toxic metals. So you can’t just point the finger at protein powder supplements completely and bash them when you are getting a double dose of toxic Mercury from that tuna sandwich you ate for lunch…

I assume it just comes down to your own individual risk tolerance (after you become educated on the subject) for potential poisoning in the short and/or long term.

This report definitely ruffled the feathers of several big time supplement companies who all rushed out to defend their products by all means necessary. But my final (and very humble) opinion about the report is this: the people who conducted the report most likely had an agenda…we all do to an extent…and of course none of us would have given a crap if the report said that spinach, apples, and shrimp tested for high levels of toxic metals because that story just isn’t as sexy.

My 2 Cents:
1. Don’t believe everything you read.
2. Don’t go crazy with protein drinks or protein foods and eat a balanced diet that consists of whole, natural foods.
3. Don’t put too much stock in consumer reports about bodybuilding and sports nutrition products.
4. Don’t form opinions based on a single source until you research the science for yourself. Then question the facts a second time.
5. Never go on a diet that leaves you dependent on protein shakes or meal replacement powders. Man made food usually contains impurities.

(Disclosure: I have no associations, affiliations, or contracts of any kind with any supplement companies or protein powder brands.)

So what are your thoughts? Do you believe the consumer report people had an agenda? Are supplement companies trying to hide the truth? Do you think that 3rd party testing of supplements is a good idea? Will you be switching protein shake brands or eliminating protein powder supplements completely? I would love to hear your feedback, so feel free to leave a comment below!

Jamin Thompson
Jamin Thompson has been called "the most handsome fitness model in the world" and "a brilliant actor & writer", both by his mom. He's a former Clemson & UMiami athlete and World Ranked tennis player who writes to help others dominate in the gym, on the field, and in life using his real world, in the trenches experience. His book, The 6 Pack Secret, has been sold in over 50 countries and has helped thousands of folks from all walks of life get cut and jacked the healthy way.
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@jaminthompson

Athlete. Actor. Fitness model. The U + Clemson. Econ/MBA. Baltimore born. Wolf raised. IG: @JaminThompson. For business inquiries: info@JaminThompson.com
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24 Responses to Protein Wars – Is Your Protein Powder TOXIC?

  1. Gary February 13, 2011 at 3:18 am #

    Honestly I freaked out when I first saw this report come out last year because honestly…I drink Muscle Milk just about every day…I know that just by looking at the ingredients it probably wasn’t the healthiest stuff but it tasted good, gave me energy, and I got in a quick meal at work. I don’t think I will give the stuff up because it is so convenient but I definitely realize now that most of this supplement stuff isn’t as healthy as we all think. Anyways, great post, and thanks for being so objective & real.

    Gary

    • Jamin Thompson February 14, 2011 at 9:13 am #

      I drink Muscle Milk from time to time, there is no need to panic, but I probably wouldn’t make Muscle Milk my daily protein source, you should probably look into using something cleaner…I like Optimum Nutrition, Prograde, & Sun Warrior.

  2. Nicholas February 13, 2011 at 4:22 am #

    This was a good read and I agree with just about everything you said. It would be great to have a governing body test supplements but that could be a slippery slope and I doubt it would ever happen. Real food, as you said, is always best.

    Nicholas

  3. laura February 13, 2011 at 10:25 pm #

    I agree, Real food is best… and cheaper. I only ever drink whey after a workout. If I am not working out I don’t touch it. To much protein is like to much of anything… not good. My other half works in the sports industry and there athletes (Rugby) have been told to lay off it a bit. A few of the players were having to much protein in there diets and were coming back with high Kidney function! It can be bad for your kidneys, unecessary and expensive. It is just marketed very well. I mean really why is it so expensive… It is a byproduct of milk and you don’t see skimed milk powder costing anywhere near as much

    • Jamin Thompson February 14, 2011 at 9:10 am #

      You make several really good points Laura and I agree with you for the most part. That whole kidney thing is an entirely different debate though, but those results are quite interesting. Protein and its impact on kidney function has been a raging debate for a while now. There could be several factors that can drive up the price I think, marketing, middle men, R&D, and most likely several other variables. Real food, as you said, is always best though and moderation is key :)

  4. Bobby Asem March 26, 2012 at 10:12 am #

    Great Article! 

  5. Ray April 17, 2013 at 4:20 pm #

    Interesting article. The thing with Consumer Reports is that they’re dilettantes in everything they pretty much test. In other words, they’re often never experts in their chosen field, in this case protein powders. I would approach their reviews much like I’d approach a dentist who says you need $2000 worth of dental work done: get a second opinion. The literature is overwhelming that protein powders, when taken in moderation, are okay as a supplement to an already decent diet.

    • Trey July 31, 2013 at 6:47 am #

      This is something everyone needs to pay attention to. While consumer reports is a good first stop, it doesn’t mean they’re always right!

      • Bobby September 17, 2013 at 9:43 pm #

        I’m with Trey and Ray on this one. Consumer reports are simply opinions/descriptions of experiences of others, and just that.
        I love the dentist analogy btw…

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