Heavy Metal Contamination Found In Protein Drinks – How Should We Define Junk Food?
Some junk foods are easy to recognize – foods like doughnuts, French fries, or snack chips, for example, are likely to be universally maligned for their obvious nutritional shortcomings. Other junk foods, however, may also be detrimental to our health, but may slip past our junk–food–detecting radar simply because of how effectively they’re marketed. Many nutritional supplements and “sports nutrition” products are perfect examples.
The demand for healthy and convenient nutrition has never been greater than it is today, and for this reason, many “sports nutrition,” meal–replacement, and protein supplement products have achieved crossover success into mainstream markets. While once thought of as nutritional tools geared only towards bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts, these days, protein drinks can be found at nearly every corner drugstore, convenience store, and gas station.
Yet the actual nutritional quality of these supplements is far worse than most people imagine. The protein raw materials used in their production are usually scarcely, if at all, superior to the industrial protein powders used to produce pet foods and feed for farm animals. Many of these products also undergo high–heat pasteurization and adulteration with numerous industrial food additives. In the end, most protein supplements make for some truly bizarre nutritional concoctions. But whether their target market is the would–be bodybuilder, or the busy health–conscious professional, the supplement companies know full–well that they need not produce healthy products, they must merely create a healthy image for their products through advertising.
Most people never even begin to investigate the actual biological effects of many of the foods they consume everyday, but many largely unsuspected factors can make a food harmful to our health. A lack of scientific/nutritional acumen is largely responsible for the herds of docile, passive consumers ready and willing to accept the often deplorably low nutritional standards of the large food producers and government regulatory agencies.
Surprisingly however, nowhere is this sort of true–believer mentality more evident than in the realm of nutritional supplements. Although one would at first think that nutritional supplement users would be particularly savvy and health–conscious, the cult–like dedication of many nutritional supplement users tends to blind them to the overwhelming evidence that many nutritional supplements are equally as harmful as the junk foods they’re supposedly meant to replace. In essence, the supplement user may wisely (yet often self–righteously) shun “junk food” only to consume its nutritional equivalent expertly marketed as cutting–edge “sports nutrition.”
We’ve written many times on this blog about the harmful effects of many ingredients used in nutritional supplements and the negative effects of certain types of processing which many supplements undergo. As yet another piece of evidence along these lines, the findings of an investigation into the heavy metal content of protein supplements were recently published in the July 2010 edition of Consumer Reports Magazine. Fifteen ready–to–drink and powdered protein supplements were purchased in retail stores or online, and were tested for their toxic heavy metal content (arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury). Based upon an intake of 3 servings per day, 3 of the products were found to contain levels of heavy metals in excess of the safe overall daily intakes proposed by the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP).
We purchased 15 protein powders and drinks mainly in the New Yorkmetro area or online and tested multiple samples of each for arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury. The results showed a considerable range, but levels in three products were of particular concern because consuming three servings a day could result in daily exposure to arsenic, cadmium, or lead exceeding the limits proposed by USP.
Some Perspective on Heavy Metals
Like essential mineral nutrients, toxic heavy metals also naturally occur in soils and in water. Plants and animals can take up and concentrate heavy metals, which is why small amounts of these substances can often be found in our food supply. It’s common for even fresh whole foods like seafood, fruits, and vegetables to contain trace amounts of heavy metal toxins.
But it’s important to remember that much of the heavy metal content in our modern food isn’t naturally–occurring, but instead, comes directly from modern industrial agricultural practices and industrial production and storage of processed foods. As examples, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and the improper handling of sewage are all known to cause heavy–metal contamination of our food supply.
Additionally, countless hundreds of industrially–processed food additives often add to the toxic metal content of modern foods, as do metals used in food production and packaging. Ultimately, it’s safe to assume that the greater degree of processing a food undergoes, the greater the risk of heavy metal contamination.
When viewed from this perspective, then, it should come as no surprise that protein powders and ready–to–drink protein shakes – some of the most highly–processed consumable products imaginable – were found to contain potentially–unsafe levels of heavy metal toxins.
In fact, the ingredient lists on most protein–supplement products read like a “who’s who” of industrial food additives – including ingredients such as: mineral caseinates, whey protein concentrates, powdered oils, thickeners, and synthetic sweeteners. Judging most protein supplements by their ingredients, any knowledgeable person not fully indoctrinated by product marketing would be justified to ask, “If this isn’t junk food – what is?”
In the context of their potential heavy–metal content, it’s important to remember that heavy metal contamination of protein supplements isn’t “unavoidable” or “naturally–occurring” – instead, it’s likely to be a direct result of the quality of ingredients used and the processing these products undergo. The finding of heavy metals in such products only serves to further reinforce our contention that most protein supplements are, in fact, no better nutritionally than many other processed junk foods.
However, in light of the publication of the report, it’s been saddening to see the response of many within the supplement industry, and of many pro–nutritional–supplement consumers (It’s understandable that supplement companies will issue spin–laden press releases in a feeble attempt to underscore the quality of their products and the supposed stringency of their manufacturing processes, but the fact that some consumers have been among those defending the very companies whose products tested poorly exposes how thoroughly manipulated consumers can become by incessant supplement–industry propaganda).
Rather than finally recognizing that many protein supplements are unquestionably destined to do more harm than good, the predominant response has been that the heavy metal content of protein supplements is “no big deal” because a person would have to consume high amounts of protein supplements for their heavy metal intake to reach dangerous levels (which isn’t true, by the way, as we discuss below); or similarly, that many foods contain some heavy metals, so what’s a little bit more? Or, “anything’s harmful if you take too much of it.” Some writers have even gone so far as to question the validity of the heavy metal investigation due to Consumer Reports’ separate contention that protein supplements may be unnecessary for many people who use them.
But ultimately, these sorts of misguided responses miss the issue entirely. The relevant issue at hand is that there's no inherent need for heavy metal toxins to exist in protein supplement products. For example, readers of this blog know that we’ve repeatedly touted the purity and unique health benefits of the CFM® Whey Isolate. With regard to heavy metal content as well, it seems that CFM® is again among the cleanest, highest quality protein sources available:
The results of several tests of the CFM® raw material (a.k.a. Provon 190) are shown below.
The fact that some protein supplements do contain problematic levels of heavy metals is simply further testament to the sub–optimal quality of ingredients (and, possibly, manufacturing methods) being used in their production. No matter how much a consumer may think that he or she is making a healthy lifestyle choice by consuming these products, the harsh reality of the available evidence proves otherwise. Protein supplements which add to the cumulative burden of heavy metal intake in a person's diet should be avoided by any health–conscious individual – plain and simple.
A Frame of Reference
There is currently no universally–accepted standard to indicate exactly how much of each heavy metal contaminant can be consumed without causing harm, but as the scientific evidence accumulates, governmental and regulatory agencies across the globe have continually lowered the threshold for intakes of heavy metals. In other words, heavy metals are continually being found to pose toxic threats at lower doses than once thought.
The USP’s standards which were used in the Consumer Reports testing were as follows:
Arsenic: 15 mcg daily
Cadmium: 5 mcg daily
Lead: 10 mcg daily
Mercury: 15 mcg daily
And again, at a dose of 3 servings per day, 3 of the 15 protein supplements tested exceeded the heavy metal limits above.
But even at doses below three servings per day, many of the products tested still pose toxicity risks. A more stringent, and more meaningful standard for environmental toxins (especially for health–conscious individuals) comes from California’s Proposition 65 – legislation which requires that manufacturers notify consumers when their products contain toxic substances at levels the state says pose even a low risk of carcinogenic or reproductive toxicity. The Consumer Reports testing of protein supplements found that a single serving of 8 of the 15 products tested exceeded the threshold of lead which legally requires that the products carry a warning in the state of California.
From the report:
“[t]he amount of lead in a single daily serving of eight of the protein supplements we tested would require that the products carry a warning in California.”
Important to note as well is that even low levels of heavy metals pose a particularly significant threat to children and pregnant women.
As we’ve repeatedly pointed out on this blog, the nutritional supplement user will be well–served to take a second look at some of the supplement products which are being marketed as healthy nutrition. This is especially important now, as the popularity of sports supplements has already begun to expand far beyond the niche market of bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts (In fact there are many who believe that the massive demand for protein supplements in the mainstream market has caused some of the largest players in the supplement industry to source raw materials of particularly questionable quality – thus contributing to the risk of contamination). As the market for these products increases, so does the potential for harm if their true nature continues to go unrecognized. In other words, accepting the supplement industry’s hype at face value can be hazardous to your health.