Is Protein Powder Healthy?

May 10, 2017 | Food and Nutrition |

The Dirt:

Protein is essential to our health. When looking for a quick fix, many consumers turn to protein powders. But, do you know where these powders are coming from? The D2D team took a deeper look at some protein supplements—here is what we found.

There is very little debate over the importance of protein. Protein is a macronutrient, meaning your body needs it to survive. Not only does it help build and replenish muscle mass, but it also supports your digestive enzymes and hemoglobin levels, enhances muscle fibers, keeps your bones strong, and helps support your immune system.

How much protein do we need?

In our recent post investigating how much protein powder our bodies need every day, we learned that the human body really does not need a ton of protein to stay healthy. In most cases, if you are eating a balanced diet, which includes natural protein sources like lean meats, eggs and some dairy products, supplements are not necessary.

But, nonetheless, the protein supplement industry continues to grow, and there are many different products and players that are marketing in this space. The array of products can be quite confusing— especially considering the fact that there is no clear cut standard of regulation for supplements.

The three main sources of protein in supplements

Whey protein is a milk-based protein that contains all nine essential amino acids for human nutrition. For this reason, it is considered a complete protein. There are two types of whey protein that are commercially sold: whey isolate and whey concentrate. Whey isolate is the purest form and contains the highest amount of the protein itself. In this case, it can contain upwards of 90% protein in the product. Whey concentrate, on the other hand, contains roughly 30% – 90% protein and contains more fat than the isolate.
Plant-based protein is a vegan, dairy free option that derives from various plant and nut protein sources and is dairy. One of the most popular forms of plant based protein is a combination of pea and rice protein powder. Suppliers will mix these products and add amino acids to the product in order for it to be considered a complete protein.
Soy protein is made from soy beans. When these beans are processed to make a protein supplement they are de-hulled and de-fatted. Soy protein concentrate typically contains 60-70% protein as beans usually require grains, nuts, and other sources of protein to be considered a complete protein.

While the D2D team doesn’t recommend taking a protein supplement every single day, we certainly see the benefit to throwing a dash of powder into your morning shake if you are eating meals on-the-go. And you probably already have a favorite when shopping for a protein supplement but do you know what ingredients go into this product?

Product regulations vary between countries

The reality is, you might not be thrilled to find out what is lurking in your powder. The problem with a lot of the brands on the market today is the ingredients come from all over the world. And while that is not always a bad thing, it does mean that they could be subjected to different regulation.
For example, some products can say “Made in the USA” because that is where the protein powder is mixed and created for production, but specific ingredients are often sourced from other countries that may or may not have the same production standards for supplement products. If you typically look for organically produced products, you are probably surprised to learn that a label can say “organic,” but it doesn’t necessarily mean it was grown in the United States on our organic soil. It may have been grown in China or another foreign country and still be considered “organic.”
Unfortunately, if the ingredients are coming from China (and a lot of times they are) they can contain heavy metals from the soil or water supply they were grown in. One Chinese government study found 90% of the groundwater in China was polluted. Additionally, a USDA report on organic products from China stated, “China does not recognize foreign organic standards, and currently no organic product equivalency agreement exists between China and the United States.” Therefore, these ‘organic’ products might be considered organic in China, however they would fall short of U.S. standards.
There may also be little consistency to sourcing as much of this depends on pricing and availability. Given this potential inconsistency we wanted to see how hard it was to get our hands on this important manufacturer information. So…we took a little field trip!

D2D Supplement Testing:

The D2D team took a trip to a national protein supplement provider and purchased the top selling vegan, soy, and whey protein powder. We reviewed the ingredients for each and contacted the product manufacturer to fill in any missing pieces of information. (And let us first tell you, all three companies were very accommodating, but if you did not have the education or knowledge as to what questions to ask, the answers were not easily provided.)

The manufacturer of vegan protein responded the following: “Over 65% of the ingredients [product name] are grown and processed in North America, Europe Union and Japan. We choose to source some ingredients from their native climate including: organic gelatinized maca root (Peru), sacha inchi protein (Peru), and chlorella (Japan).”

The manufacturer of soy protein informed us that the soybeans used are grown in “eastern Asia,” however a specific location could not be confirmed— although it is believed to be China. 

And lastly, the whey protein manufacturer confirmed, “the milk used in Whey is from the United States and the MBP (milk basic protein) is from Japan.”

After receiving these responses, we consulted with Victoria Zupa, ND, a licensed Naturopathic Physician who confirmed that the information provided was particularly vague and we were right be be concerned!
So, in addition to finding the country of origin of these product ingredients, we were motivated to go one step further. We sent the three sources to a third-party lab and had a basic heavy metal panel performed on the three samples. The results are included below.
Disclaimer: Before reviewing these results, it is important to note that this test is not representative of protein supplements as a whole. We are not scientists. This metal analysis was performed by an independent lab and only reflects a small piece of a very complex product. In order to conclusively state the amount of metals in protein powders, larger, more complex, and peer-reviewed studies would need to take place.
D2D wants to help you understand what can be found in your foods. For both the vegan and soy proteins, various metals were detected in the lab analysis, with the barium content being particularly high. Barium is a silvery white metal found in nature. It can act as a muscle stimulant and in high doses, barium can cause anxiety, tremors, and even muscle weakness. Barium contamination often comes from the original water source used in production.
According to the World Health Organization, “Most foods contain less than 0.002 mg of barium per gram (Gormican, 1970). Some cereal products and nuts may contain high levels: e.g., bran flakes, 0.0039 mg/g; pecans, 0.0067 mg/g; and Brazil nuts, up to 4 mg/g (Mertz, 1986)” (WHO: Barium in Drinking Water).  Additionally, the EPA “allows 2 parts of barium per million parts of drinking water (2ppm).”

NATIONAL DRINKING WATER REGULATIONS

Arsenic: EPA set 10 ppb as the allowable level for arsenic in drinking water

Cadmium: FDA set maximum limit of cadmium in bottled water as 0.005ppm

Lead: EPA set allowable level for lead in drinking water as 0.015ppm

Mercury: EPA set allowable level for mercury in drinking water as .002ppm

By the WHO standards, .0039 mg/g is considered a relatively high level of barium. So, in the soy protein lab results included above, 2.27 parts per million (roughly 0.00227 mg/g) which is higher than desired. And according to the EPA standards for drinking water, the barium content of these powders is considered above the acceptable limit. The vegan protein also tested even higher, with 16.3 ppm (or 0.0163 mg/g).
It is true your body knows how to process and eliminate toxic substances in small amounts. Trace amounts of lead, barium, mercury, arsenic, and other metals do end up in our food. As acknowledged by the WHO, most foods contain trace levels of barium! And you are probably thinking that 2.27ppm of barium is relatively small. But if you are taking protein supplements every day, these substances can build up in your system. (For more on these metals and the trace or toxic levels that can be found in your food, please visit the World Health Organization.)

Wouldn’t you rather be eating a delicious egg omelet or a juicy piece of chicken!

So, there is more to these products (and their branding) than what meets the eye. If you still want to continue to incorporate protein supplements into your diet, we think the most important think you should consider is the country of origin before ringing out at the cash register. We have learned that Europe has tighter regulations than other parts of the world, particularly China— so you might be interested to look for products from the E.U.
Additionally, ImmunoPro and Vital Nutrients are two whey proteins that were recommended to us as a clean product. However, as with anything, it is important to consume these clean sources in moderation. This will depend on your activity level, body weight, and overall nutrition, but as a rule of thumb you should probably only use supplements 2-3x a week.

The Bottom Line:

We want to emphasize that we do not want you to walk away from this review feeling like all protein supplements are poisonous. That is not the case, and certainly we want to assume that protein supplement manufacturers are in good faith producing a safe, clean product. However, our deep dive into this product category has raised some skepticism on ingredient sourcing. In our opinion, the best source for protein lies in a chicken or egg, not a pill, powder or tablet.

Resources:

“Barium.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Mar. 2017. Web. 10 May 2017.

“Barium in Drinking-water.” WHO Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality. World Health Organization , 2004. Web.

“Consumer Updates – FDA 101: Dietary Supplements.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration . Office of the Commissioner, 25 July 2015. Web. 10 May 2017.

“Environmental Health and Medicine Education.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, n.d. Web. 10 May 2017. <https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/csem.asp?csem=6&po=7>.

Freedman, Lisa. “Whey Protein.” Men’s Fitness. Men’s Fitness, 24 Jan. 2015. Web. 10 May 2017.

“National Primary Drinking Water Regulations.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 21 Mar. 2017. Web. 10 May 2017.