Protein powders: Contaminant concerns?

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    A scoop of protein powder can amp-up your morning smoothie.

    But there may be an unwelcome surprise in your supplement.

    While protein powders are driving the growth of the soon-to-be $20-billion a year sports-nutrition/sports-drink market, do you really know what’s in them?

    Today, the Clean Label Project, a nonprofit, dedicated to improving transparency in labeling, released a brand new study about the ingredients you don’t see.

    “People are buying these to complement their already healthy lifestyle. They're not looking for an endocrine disruptor," said Jaclyn Bowen, executive director of the Clean Label Project.

    The group tested 134 of the top-selling protein powders in America for industrial and environmental contaminants.

    Forty percent of the products had elevated levels of BPA and heavy metals — like lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic.

    “Some of them are very well-known carcinogens,” said internist Dr. Margarita Kullick. “Lead and mercury are on the top of that."

    For decades, Kullick’s specialized in the impact of heavy metals on the human body. She says dangerous, heavy metals accumulate and wreak havoc on cells.

    “What do they do to our body? Some of them affect more of the brain, some of them affect the kidneys, affect the liver, but they actually pretty much affect all the cells. Cancer, autism, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue."

    Some of the worst offenders in the Clean Label Project’s tests were organic, plant-based protein powders.

    More than 75 percent had measurable levels of lead.

    And certified organic products averaged twice the heavy metals of their uncertified counterparts.

    “They have a tendency for their sweetener to use ingredients like rice-based ingredients or soy-based ingredients and those particular two agricultural commodities have a tendency to pull higher levels of heavy metals," said Bowen.

    "Vega Sport Plant-Based Vanilla Performance Protein" ranked dead last. The sample tested contained 67 parts per billion of cadmium — far exceeding daily tolerance levels in states like California, that have set limits.

    "This is literally one smoothie. One serving. So if you eat nothing else in an entire day, you've exceeded that state of California level,” said Bowen.

    "360-Pro Whey Chocolate Silk Premium" also fell to the bottom of the list with 80 ppb of cadmium and 22 ppb of lead. The EPA limit for lead in water is 15 ppb, although no level is considered safe.

    Even though that product is still widely available, the company has gone out of business.

    Bowen notes that while vanilla products were often among the cleanest, chocolate ones had a tendency to absorb cadmium. She attributes that to, in some geographic areas, the cacao plant has higher levels of cadmium.

    As a rule of thumb, she suggests sticking to egg and whey-based proteins that are vanilla flavored — as they seemed to rank consistently highest based on their studies.

    Products like Puori "PW1 Vanilla Pure Whey Protein" and Biochem "Vanilla 100 percent Whey Protein" won the day with the least amount of industrial and environmental contaminants and/or the highest nutritional superiority.

    The CDC says most adults get more than enough protein to meet their needs.

    Kullick warns unless you're an elite athlete, there are risks to overdoing the protein, primarily damage to your kidneys and kidney disease.

    We reached out to both Vega and 360-Pro for an interview but did not receive a response.

    Click here for a complete list of the products tested by the "Clean Label Project."

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