3 Things that Shouldn’t Be in Your Protein Powder (But Probably Are)
Over the years, we’ve talked a lot about plant-based protein: How much protein vegan athletes need, plant-based protein sources, and in general, how vegans get protein.
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’d like to try the protein powder you’ve developed.
I am looking forward to your protein powder! In the meantime, what are some of the healthier protein powder options on the market?
Orgain is pretty healthy
Orgain failed tests for heavy metal contamination
Thank you, excited to learn more!
Very informative read on Plant-based proteins! Look forward to hearing more and ordering the protein that you and your team have developed.
Am moving to an animal free diet, slowly. So so far absolutely no pork, only free range, grass feed beef (and not much of that, same for chicken and eggs). Thanks for the info on protein powder as that is my next step along with eliminating dairy). Any reasearched info is greaty appreciated. Thanks again for the info.
What an eye opener. Thank you for sharing your findings. I feel duped — I thought my organic hemp protein powder was one of the best quality out there. I’ll be watching for your next email for pre-order of Complement Protein!
Yes! Please keep me posted! I’m excited to hear from you soon and how I can I can get my hands in this protien powder. Thank You.
Hello! Thank you for all the info you have given, especially this round. Im wondering what plant based protein powders have these ingredients and which ones are higher in bad ingredients than others?
Thank you for connecting with us, I’ve been searching for a good healthy protein for bodybuilding still have not come across one that I feel safe with.
Thanks for the “scary” info about protein powders -WOW
Let me know when it’s ready to be ordered & price
I like you just wanted a boost in a protein powder and not all the additives. I can’t wait to read your protein powder label.
Let me know when its available for protein powder thanks
Have you looked into muscle pharm protein?
It got a 1-star rating on that site linked in the article.
So this is just an article-length advert for your protein powder. That does explain why fibers “from soy and corn” are called “totally unnatural”. Conflict of interest much?
I’ve been on Keto for over a year now but eat very little meat. I’ve have a protein smoothie every day for breakfast but have had challenges finding one that contains safe ingredients. I try to get most of my protein naturally but have been doing these smoothies as I said for a year and they have helped. I am looking forward to receiving more info ftom you as this has been a year of research and experimentation for me. But commitment and endurance was the key 120 lb loss later. Thank you for your on going efforts. Karin
Where do we learn more about the new protein you’re developing? I’ve been trying to avoid the heavy metals.
Keith – was thinking the same thing …..Marketing scare tactic and then flog your own protein powder ….
I’d like to be the source for your protein powder in Houston, Texas.
Probably not an issue in the past. Yet very important in today‘s diet.
Yes!! Still been using the commercially available products with some hesitation. So excited about this!
would like to try your protien powder
I am very interested!!
I want to know when your plant based protein is available
Can you recommend a really good plant-based protein powder until yours comes out?
How does one know yours is okay. Will you turn it over to the Consumer Reports lab for testing.
I use Gold Standard 100percent Whey Protein I have done some reading and research on this whey protein and so far it has been ranked among the top protein powder to use, we often use a quote that no fisherman will ever call his own fish spoil, the question is should I do more research on this product or is this safe to use?
Ok so you list all these things found in popular protein powders but you don’t bother recommendations for one that are best for human consumption, Why?
I am not a athlete but I am trying to get in better shape I’m very interested in the protein that you all are creating
I would love more info on the protein powder!
I dont get why these products are being sent to our shelves full of poison. These products need to be regulated when people are purchasing them. Why are they not being approved or not by the FDA??
Looking forward to trying it!
Very informative thank you
I expected a list of recommendations
I am very interested in all the information I can get on nutrition, and very thankful that you’ve taken the time to research protein powders. I look forward to purchase your new protein powder product.
would like to know more abt ur product
Curious to know if the new protein powder will be free of peanuts/treenuts
Why just add a 1/4 cup of hemp seed to the smoothie?
Oops sorry I meant “ why not just add a 1/4 cup of hemp seed to your smoothie?”
Would like more information ?
Look forward to your protein powder. Thanks for informing about the toxic proteins!
Can’t wait ~
How do I get a list of the good n bad providers? Hope you get the UK on your distribution list for your supplements soon. Love NMA
Hello. Thank you for this information. In the past I have used Boku Super Protein who claims to have a low metal count and pays attention to the ingredients in their protein. Also I am currently using Vega Premium Protein which also is supposed to cognizant of the metal count. Were these a part of your research? If not do you know anything about their products?
Thanks for the valuable info on protein powders. Now, we are all eager to have you rate them….and recommend your favorite brands and varieties.
I sure will start scrupulously reading those ingredient labels!!
BTW: My fitness club exclusively uses SWIIG brand. Reactions?
Very informative. Many proteins does make correct claims.
Thank you for the in depth article. I am glad you are creating a healthy protein powder. For real public service, it would have been in integrity to share your list of findings and share the list of the safest protein powders out there. You might have considered sharing all of your references if you declined to do that. I know you may have to make a living. However, trusting the universe to support you when you are generous with your resources and findings will lend more credibility. Plus people are more likely going to purchase from you as you are showing mutual respect and integrity. Wishing you the best!
Seconding what Skysong said!!! The blogs would be received better and more credible/sincere with references included to help inform the readers. I would even recommend having a policy call-to-action that is in line with the subject matter- see Humane Society /policy focused org for a take action link? We come to your site seeking information to make informed choices. Without references or greater substance, the blogs simply read as product advertisements.
Please contact me with the well vetted protein powder.
Frankly, most of what this article discusses explicitly resonates personally at an implicit level. Arsenic? No thank you.
Soy, in general is controversial, and I’m conflicted. I’d appreciate something in layman’s terms that spells it out. “Pros” and “cons,” what are they? Does it deserve the demonization I’ve long assumed?
I would love to have a list of the “clean” protein powders. I take good care of myself (or thought I did before this was published), and looks like taking really good care would be to be sure to take in no
harmful chemicals or additives.
Thank you for making a clean plant-protein powder!
Any chance of a nut-free version?!?! I know some very active folks with a tree nut allergy/sensitivity that would like to be plant-based.
Thanks for your consideration!
I’d love to know this answer too. I would like to use your powder in our household but my husband is highly allergic to all nuts. Do you have a nut-free alternative?
Where can I see the breakdown of which products were tested and what the results were? I use an plant based protein powder and I want to see if it is on the list.
Do we really need protein powder because even the good ones are processed
Besides buying YOUR product that is obviously superior, would it be possible for your team to write my school report for creative writing?
I would like to know how the products were tested and what your lab resources were. It somehow seems disingenuous to state that these powders contain all of these health deteriorating ingredients, then tout your own brand. A legitimate study with methods and resources would be believable; this I’m not too sure of…
I find this article very relevant, which is why I stopped using the protein powders as I came across the study in its entirety and was in disbelief and fearful. Although, I found this article helpful, it would have been advantageous to include other safer protein powder alternatives besides yours because it wont he available until January.
The arsenic present in asian rice is typically a natural organic form which does not appear to cause any health issues, unlike rice from DDT laced Australian soils, as DDT used decades ago does not break down, and produces known health problems. Export products from asian countries are usually of reputable quality. However, Taiwan, for example, does have both organic and non-organic farming and zoning, but non-organic may be GMO, so merely knowing the country of origin may not be adequate.
Having said that, the question arises whether concentrated powder extracts are as safe as the whole food counterparts, given that there are high levels of some heavy metals, albeit natural. The fibre content is what helps the body to remove such toxins from the body. Therefore protein smoothies may be only as good as their fibre content. Low fibre protein drinks may be more mucus forming and therefore unhealthy compared to, say, even a meal of grass fed beef.
Although, I feel it is good to have protein powders as a standby, and many healthful ingredients can be added to them.
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