Protein isn’t just a fitness trend. It’s a vital component of strong, well-formed muscles. With the growth of the fitness and wellness industry over the last few years, the global protein powder market has exploded. In 2016, it generated $12.4 billion. And it’s not slowing down: between 2017 and 2025, the market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 6.3%.
But what if the protein powder you thought was doing good was actually contaminating your body? This might sound like some hoax, but according to one study, it’s actualy reality—making it more important than ever to select the best protein powder brands.
Earlier this year, a nonprofit organization called Clean Label Project (CLP) tested 134 plant- and animal-based protein powders. They found that of the 134 tested, nearly all of them came back positive for at least one heavy metal such as arsenic, mercury or lead. But that’s not all. Nearly 55% contained BPAs, the chemical toxin used in plastic, which we’ve long been told to avoid.
These weren’t just small doses or trace elements, which can be expected in most products. The detectable amounts contained concerning levels of contaminants. One protein powder contained more than 25 times the regulatory limit of BPA—in a single serving.
This comes as a shock to the fitness and supplement industries, and to consumers, who are turning to protein products more than ever. Here’s what you need to know about the issue and how to avoid heavy metal contamination.
A history of tainted products
The FDA doesn’t review supplements like it does pharma products. That means that it can’t guarantee safety or efficacy. But the FDA retains the right to pull products off the shelves if harmful effects are reported. Lax regulations in this area have left some supplement manufacturers less focused on creating products that consumers can trust.
The study by CLP isn’t the first research to uncover protein powder contamination. In 2010, Consumer Reports conducted a study on a variety of protein drinks and powders. They found low-to-moderate levels of heavy metal contaminants. But due to particularly high levels of certain contaminants, three of those tested products raised the most concern. Why? Anyone who imbibed on 2-3 servings of the protein product per day would easily exceed U.S. Parmacopeia (USP) limits for the element.
At that time, the Consumer Reports director of technical policy called for such products to be properly labeled. The latest study reveals that this hasn’t yet been done.
The negative effects of heavy metals for the body
Okay, so what’s so wrong with a bit of arsenic (used in rat poison) cadmium (used in battery acid), lead, mercury, pesticides or BPA in your protein powder? A Consumer Reports Food Safety Division program leader said that the toxins “accumulate in your body and can stay there for years.” And the effects can be devastating.
Exposure to high amounts of the neurotoxin mercury can wreak havoc on the system, from the gastrointestinal tract to the brain. It can also damage the nervous system and the kidneys. Symptoms of high mercury exposure can include memory loss, mental problems, weak muscles and skin rashes. Arsenic exposure can lead to cardiac problems, cancer and death, as well as a whole host of symptoms. Long-term exposure to cadmium increases the risk of developing chronic obstructive lung disease and emphysema. BPA has been linked to infertility and a number of cancers
What about organic, plant-based protein powders?
Plant-based protein powders like hemp and soy were found, in many cases, to be the worst culprits of hidden contaminants. About 75% of the plant-based products tested contained detectable levels of lead. Being organic didn’t help matters much. In fact, organic products generally brought with them substantially higher levels of contaminants than egg- or dairy-based products. This is likely due to chemicals and metals from manufacturing runoff leeching into the soil (or water), and into our food (and many protein powders).
And the winners are…
Here’s the good news: several of the tested brands scored highly on CLPs list for the fewest contaminants, including BodyFortress and PureProtein. (For more trusted reviews on quality protein products, click here.) Egg protein powders took the win for cleanest protein in this study.
How to protect yourself against metal poisoning
While some trace levels of chemicals and metals can be expected in all protein powders, trace elements don’t pose as much of a risk as detectable levels. “Detectable levels” of dangerous metals means that manufacturers aren’t maintaining strict quality control over their processes and products.
Does this mean you should give up your protein powders for good? Not at all. It simply means you should be an informed consumer. To ensure you’re only getting the best quality protein powder, diligently check your labels and read unbiased reviews like these.