And there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to that last question…
Although I’ve managed to get plenty of protein from whole foods for the past few years, I’ve always acknowledged that for certain people — people who want to gain weight, build muscle, try to hit macronutrient levels, or just want some peace of mind — supplementing makes more sense.
And yes, we’ve moved past the idea that supplementing a plant-based diet somehow make the diet wrong, or unnatural. We know there are some you need, and many you don’t. Protein is a maybe, depending on age, goals, and the rest of your diet.)
But if you take vegan protein powder yourself, there’s one question you should most definitely know the answer to:
What’s in your protein powder?
I started looking more closely at protein powders a few months ago, for my kids’ sake. They’re both young plant-based athletes, and — call it parental paranoia if you want — I find myself worrying about their picky eating habits, specifically that most of the foods they love (fresh fruits and vegetables, especially in smoothies) aren’t necessarily dense in protein or, more generally, in total calories.
But when I started looking at the ingredient lists of the common plant-based powders, I was surprised and disappointed. Unfamiliar and artificial ingredients, plus sweeteners (even natural ones) that I knew they wouldn’t like the taste of in their smoothies.
So I did some more digging…
And it got worse. Waaay worse.
Today I want to share a bit about what I found, in hopes that it helps you to make more informed decisions when choosing a protein powder, if you choose to use them.
And I’ll start with the one that scares me the most…
1. Heavy Metals and Other Carcinogens
Now, I know what you’re thinking.
Heavy metals and chemicals in my protein powder? Nah. No way. I get the good stuff. And it comes from plants.
Think again. Last year, the Clean Label Project™ completed a study examining 134 plant-based and animal-based protein powder products from 52 different brands. They screened for over 130 toxins, including heavy metals, BPA, pesticides, and other contaminants with ties to health problems.
And you know what they found? (You might want to sit down for this one.)
Many of the most popular plant-based powders were ranked the worst for their high levels of contaminants like heavy metals. In fact, plant-based proteins ranked lower than animal-based proteins on average.
So how does that nasty stuff get into your powder?
According to Clean Label Project, “Contaminants are the result of sourcing and production practices. Contaminants can be found in soils because of pesticides and mining run-off (ex. heavy metals) and can be absorbed into plants just like nutrients. They can also be the result of the manufacturing process (ex. BPA/BPS is using the lining of cans and containers and leach into the protein powder.)”
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common heavy metals and chemicals to see what the study actually found:
BPA (bisphenol A)
By now you’ve probably heard of BPA, but most people don’t actually know what it is. BPA, or bisphenol A, is a chemical used in a lot of commercial product packaging as a way to strengthen the plastic.
High amounts of BPA, however, is known to cause cancerous tumors, birth defects, and other mental and physical health issues.
A few years ago, BPA garnered a lot of attention when it was discovered to leach from that plastic into drinks, like water. Since then, many popular water bottles have gone BPA-free, but it’s still commonly used in many food containers, including some plastic containers that store protein powder, or even the plastic measuring scoop often included in the tub.
The Clean Label Project study found that 55% of protein powders tested had high levels of BPA, and one had over 25 times the allowed regulatory limit in just one serving.
According to the study, nearly 70% of plant-based protein powders contained measurable amounts of lead. The potential mental and physical health problems associated with lead are well documented, so why is it showing up in these protein powders?
The primary problem seems to be where the ingredients are sourced from. Lead in the ground seeps into the growing food before harvesting, and stays there as it’s turned into your powder.
Arsenic is a naturally occurring chemical often found in water, food, and soil.
This is a particular problem with rice-based products, which is grown in water-flooded conditions, and arsenic in the soil finds its way into the roots of rice crops and is eventually stored in the grains.
Arsenic, of course, is also known to cause a number of health problems including cancer.
So why is it in plant-based protein powder? Primarily because of poorly sourced brown rice protein isolate.
According to the same Clean Label Project study, 74% of protein powders contained measurable amounts of cadmium.
Cadmium is another natural toxic element often found in rocks and soil, and because it does not corrode easily, it’s often used in batteries. That’s right, batteries.
And you guessed it, cadmium also has links to cancer.
But what if my powder is organic?
That was one of my first questions as well. But organic, although good for other reasons, is no help when it comes to heavy metals. Organic protein powders had on average twice the amount of heavy metals as non-organic options, so if a brand doesn’t disclose heavy metal information to you, you’re left wondering.
2. Sweeteners and Flavorings
These days, sweeteners are added to just about every processed food, so it should come as no surprise that they’re also often added to protein powders.
But here’s the thing.
Sweeteners are totally unnecessary. Same goes with flavors (natural or not) like vanilla. The only reason companies often adds the sweeteners and flavors is to try and mask the taste.
In turn, however, they’re adding unnatural ingredients that not only taste fake, but are potentially harmful.
Take a look at common artificial sweeteners like acesulfame potassium, sucralose, or splenda, for example. These sweeteners with their potent taste not only train the brain to crave sweet foods, but are known to increase the risk of diabetes and obesity.
How about natural sweeteners like stevia or monk fruit, you ask?
In my opinion, if it isn’t serving me (or my kids), I don’t want to add it to my smoothie, where the additional sweetness only makes things taste less natural. I want my smoothie to taste like the fruit that’s in it, and no sweeter.
3. Fillers, Preservatives, and Gums
While the contaminants scare me most, the biggest shocker I came across in my research on protein powders was what I learned about fillers.
First, there’s a reason why you don’t see percentages next to protein powder ingredients on labels.
Many brands, like the one I used to take, boast a “blend of pea, rice, hemp, and chia” (for example) to create the appearance of a complete amino acid profile. But if they’re not telling you the amounts of each in the product, then nothing prevents them from using 95 or even 99 percent of the cheapest powder, and only blending the others to make up the remaining 5 percent or less.
There’s nothing to tell you it’s pretty much just one type of protein. And that the amino acid profile is incomplete.
In an industry so unregulated as supplements are, it’s not hard to imagine that’s what they do.
Besides cheap proteins, dextrin (a carbohydrate from starch) and maltodextrin (produced from corn, rice, potato starch, or wheat) are common fillers added to protein powder to bulk it up.
Then there are gums, like xanthan gum, which is derived from corn and soy and often used as a thickener in protein power. These gums are totally unnatural, and often cause bloating and gas.
The misleading packaging means you don’t ever really know what’s in your powder. Sure, you might have an ordered ingredient list, but when you don’t know how much of each ingredient is included, you have know idea if your powder is really what it claims to be.
What’s In Your Protein Powder Matters
When I first started doing this research, it terrified me. Since I was just looking for a small boost to their intake, not a 40-gram megadose of protein, I had assumed choosing a natural, plant-based option would be easy.
But toxic heavy metals?
And not really knowing how much of each protein is in it?
As a parent, the last thing I’d want is to think I’m making a smart decision to help my kids’ health and athletic potential — and actually be giving them something that does the opposite.
So: armed with this knowledge of the problems with most protein powders, what do you do?
For starters, your research.
A quick search will produce a number of lists created by reputable sources of powders that are better than others. Companies that source ingredients from the right places and spend the time to do the appropriate testing.
Or there’s the other option… create your own.
Ultimately, when I couldn’t find what I wanted on the market, that’s what I opted to do. (Just like with Complement, where I wanted a way to be able to get just the handful of important nutrients missing from a plant-based diet in from a single source.)
For the past several months, the No Meat Athlete team and I — along with the help from a small group of super-engaged community members — have been working on a cleaner, healthier, plant-based protein powder, free of heavy metals, sweeteners, and other fillers. And one which we can be completely transparent about which ingredients are included and exactly how much of each.
Not a giant dose of protein, just a boost, meant to “complement” what’s already in a healthy plant-based diet.
In other words, a protein powder I’d be comfortable giving to my own kids.
That new (better, cleaner) powder is now available to the public. And I couldn’t be happier to get it out into the world.
Check out Complement Protein, and never worry about what’s in your protein powder again.
I believe that plant-based is the healthiest way you can eat -- both for how you feel and perform in the short term, and for long-term health. But there are a few nutrients that are hard to get from plants, and I didn't want to take a whole multivitamin with so much extra that I'm already getting from my food. That's why I created Complement Plus, the perfect nutrient formula for plant-based athletes.
Complement Plus brings together, in one place, the essential nutrients that are missing from a reasonably diverse, whole food plant-based diet:
- DHA/EPA Omega-3s
- Minerals like zinc, iodine, and selenium
Click here to learn more.