Written by Randy Fritz
When Consumer Reports found dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals in protein shakes, they raised some important questions:
1. Is my protein powder toxic?
2. Is protein powder healthy?
3. Is protein powder necessary?
In 2010, Consumer Reports purchased 15 protein powders and drinks mainly in the New York metro area or online and tested multiple samples of each for arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury.
They found that at least one item from each product line contained detectable levels of cadmium, arsenic, lead or mercury. The three most toxic brands contained levels of heavy metal toxicity above the safe allowable limits proposed by U.S. Pharmacopeia. Many others contained levels in the low to moderate range.
Manufacturers denied the danger, citing independent analysis by non-profit NSF International. According to NSF, the products in question passed their own standard called the American National Standard for Nutritional/Dietary Supplements, or NSF/ANSI.
Consumer Reports counters that there is significant variation between samples even within a given product line, and one satisfactory sample does not exonerate the entire line.
The results were disturbing, considering how many people consume these highly processed food products and how much they consume per day.
Personally I would not find even low to moderate exposure acceptable considering how many other toxic products we find in our environment. We have enough health considerations just dealing with life without wondering about a product we specifically consume for health or fitness!
Cadmium exposure is particularly scary because it accumulates in and can damage the kidneys, the same organs that can be damaged by excessive protein consumption. It can take 20 years for the body to eliminate even half the cadmium absorbed today. All toxic metals such as the ones discussed here typically accumulate in your body over time where they can cause irreparable damage.
Imagine what will happen to the large group of teenagers and twenty-somethings wanting to bulk up today. They are the ones who eat a lot of these products and who may be in for a very unpleasant surprise in the future.
“This (cadmium) is a highly toxic metal, and while there are some cases where decisions have to be weighed against relative risks, accepting that you have to be exposed to any cadmium at all in your protein drink after your workout is definitely not one of them,” says Michael Harbut, M.D., director of the Environmental Cancer Initiative at the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Royal Oak, Mich.
You can read the complete findings (5 pages) at Consumer Reports.
Next: Is Protein Powder Healthy?
Is Protein Powder Healthy?
Besides the concern of actual toxins in your product one should also consider the relative merits of the different kinds of protein and carbohydrates involved.
Protein #1 Soy:
In the past, most protein powders were focused on soy protein There has been a lot of recent concern for various problems associated with it.
- Raw soybeans contain a form of phytic acid that can block certain mineral absorption.
- Soy contains goitrogens: substances that block the synthesis of thyroid hormones and interfere with iodine metabolism, thereby interfering with your thyroid function. Since many people suffer from an underactive thyroid, this is worth considering.
- Soy can possibly negatively affect estrogen levels in the body.
- Soy foods contain anti-nutritional factors such as saponins, soyatoxin, phytates, protease inhibitors, oxalates, goitrogens and estrogens. Some of these factors interfere with the enzymes you need to digest protein.
- Soy contains hemagglutinin: a clot-promoting substance that causes your red blood cells to clump together. These clumped cells are unable to properly absorb and distribute oxygen to your tissues.
Dr. Mercola lists a number of health challenges associated with soy, including:
- Breast cancer
- Brain damage
- Infant abnormalities
- Thyroid disorders
- Kidney stones
- Immune system impairment
- Severe, potentially fatal food allergies
- Impaired fertility
- Danger during pregnancy and nursing
The Chinese have been using soy for centuries but only if it was fermented or properly processed. Fermented soy products include tempeh, miso, natto and soy sauce.
Also some companies claim that their particular processing methods deal with some of the soy problems. Unfortunately processing can have its own problems.
According to nutritionist Sally Fallon, author of Nourishing Traditions: “manufacturing soy protein isolate involves acid washing in aluminum tanks that leeches high levels of aluminum into the final product. Nitrites are formed during spray drying, and numerous artificial flavorings, including MSG, are added to improve taste. These chemicals are associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and severe allergic reactions.”
Protein #2 Whey:
Whey protein is a byproduct of the cheese-making industry. If you are allergic to dairy products or if you cannot digest the sugar in milk products (lactose intolerant), then this clearly is an issue.
Isolated whey protein contains fewer sugars than concentrated whey protein and both have known health benefits. The Whey Protein Institute lists a host of them including positive help in general wellness, weight management, immune health, cancer prevention, gastrointestinal health, heart health and AIDS/HIV.
The benefits of whey can vary depending on the source of milk (organic grass fed cattle best) and processing.
Protein #3 Pea Protein:
A more recent addition to the popular protein area, pea protein, has many benefits. The most obvious is that it is plant-based. Also the source of this protein is the yellow pea, an environmentally safe crop that has been grown for centuries.
Protein #4 Casein:
Casein in the main protein in milk. It is more slowly absorbed, and lasts longer in the body, so is better for a meal replacement than other proteins or before bed. It is unsuitable to those with dairy sensitivities.
Other Common Questionable Ingredients:
Most people are trying to cut down on sugar because:
1. Sugar makes you fat.
2. Sugar makes you nervous.
3. Sugar depresses your immune system.
4. Sugar cause wrinkles.
5. Sugar rots your teeth.
These include Aspartame, Sucralose and Maltodextrin. There is nothing good about these and they actually cause weight gain! Read: Are You Dying to Be Thin?
Vitamins and Mineral
Unless this is a high quality shake, these isolates will often be synthetic (man made) and not extracts from whole foods. These isolates have their own problems. To learn more, read: Vitamins VS Foods
Next: Is Protein Powder Necessary?
Why Bother With Protein Powder?
Many health experts argue that very few people need high quantities of protein to begin with, and Consumer Reports points out there are many protein sources from the grocery store which can supply all the protein you need that are not toxic.
- Protein is essential in the body for our muscles but is also necessary for most cell functions since it makes up enzymes, hormones and even DNA.
- Most protein is recycled, so unless you are growing rapidly or are breaking down the body with extreme physical exertion, there is no need for a lot of new protein.
- More people in North America actually suffer from too much protein. Read: The Protein Myth
- The extra calories from excess protein (more than the body needs) are converted into fat.
- The extra nitrogen (ammonia group) from excess protein is first a big stress to the liver in the form of ammonia and then a bigger stress to the kidney in the form of urea.
- Years of stressing the kidney can cause kidney failure.
- Kidney failure is a common disease and cause of death in countries where lots of protein in eaten.
- Kidney failure is very common in populations with very high protein intake (Eskimos, body builders).
- When patients are hospitalized with kidney failure, the first thing done is to put a person on a low protein diet.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
The recommended daily allowance for protein is .75 gram for every kilogram of ideal body weight. This means about 44 grams for an average 120 pound female and 56 grams for the average 150 pound male.
These RDAs are based on studies that found the actual human need for protein at .3 grams/ kilogram. A huge margin of safety was added to account for individual variability.
The International Society Of Sports Nutrition has gone a step further, recommending 1 to 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for endurance athletes and up to 2 grams of protein / kilo of body weight for strength or power athletes. Again this is being very generous and if you are not an endurance or power athlete, this amount of protein is way too much.
Benefits of Protein Powder
The biggest benefit of protein powders is that they are convenient and for a serious athlete they can be very useful.
For serious athletes, nutrient timing is very important. The effects of nutrition can be greatly maximized by eating it at the proper time. In almost all cases, this is just before and just after hard exercise. This allows for the body to have a ready supply of energy during activity plus the needed protein and carbohydrates to repair and build muscle right after. It is this repair and build up of muscle that is the key factor in getting greater performance and in some cases losing weight.
It is often just not convenient to be cooking after exercise.
Although protein powders can be a good addition to an already healthy balanced diet they should not be used as a substitute. That being said, if the choice for some people is between coffee and a doughnut versus the protein shake, the protein shake wins easily, as long as it is a good quality product.
At Real Food for Life, we like to remind everyone that you can get all your protein requirements from whole real foods. Every single whole plant food has protein.
Beans, grains, seeds and sprouts have high levels of proteins, but fruits like oranges, bananas and even watermelons have complete protein. You just have to eat more of those foods.
In North America, most people are generally eating a lot of food. If that food was whole food, there would be an abundance of all nutrients.
Protein Suggestions and Tips:
Quinoa: a Powerfood for You Now here is a grain with good quality protein. Its essential amino acid balance is similar to milk!
Sprouting Nuts & Seeds Get more protein and easier digestion from your nuts and seeds.
Beans, Beans & More Beans! Filled with protein – 1/2 cup (4 ounces) of beans is equivalent to eating two ounces of lean protein.
Nutritional Benefits of Nuts & Seeds Best plant sources of protein. The American Cancer Association is recommending a plant-based diet for the prevention of cardiovascular disease and cancer. An ounce of nuts provides 6 g of protein on average.
- Red Lentil Soup: The lentil was named one top 5 most healthy foods on the planet!
- Almond Milk: A healthy, dairy-free alternative