Moguls on the Powder Run!

May 10, 2017 | Food Ingredients |

The Dirt:

Protein is extremely important. It helps your body build muscle, repair issue, and creates important hormones and enzymes. While every person is different and may require different amounts of protein, one thing is for sure— we all need it. To make it easier to get protein, many consumers turn to protein supplements. But, do you know where these powders or products are coming from? The D2D team took a deeper look at some protein supplements—here is what we learned…

Protein is essential

There is very little debate over the importance of protein. After all, it is absolutely essential for your overall body health. Protein is a “macronutrient”— meaning your body needs it to survive. Not only does it helps build and replenish muscle mass, but protein also supports your digestive enzymes, helps our body’s hemoglobin, enhances muscle fibers, keeps our bones strong, and helps support our immune system!

But how much protein do we need?

In our recent post “The Powder Run,” we learned that the human body really does not need a ton of protein to remain healthy. If you fall into the category of a very highly active or professional athlete, it may be necessary for you to take in more protein throughout the day.

But it is generally safe to say that if you are eating a balanced diet which includes natural protein sources like lean meats, eggs and some dairy products, supplements are not necessary.

A quick refresher: you may recall, the suggested protein intake for the average active woman is roughly 70 grams per day, and for the average active man about 95 grams per day. Not so hard to come by as this illustration shows…

But, the fact is, spurred on by consumers who often look to sports supplements as dietary supplements, 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.

So, why are so many Americans buying into supplemental sources?

Consumers on the go…

Although the D2D team personally believes that you most likely don’t need an additional protein supplement in order to achieve your daily recommended value— we know that it’s not always easy to get there when you are on the go. So, while we don’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 skipping meals or not getting your protein from food sources.

There are three primary sources of protein in supplements

The most popular protein supplements vary in their base. There is vegan plant-based protein, whey protein and soy protein… So, let’s review the choices…

Whey protein is a milk-based protein and thus  contains all 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 of the protein and contains the highest amount of the protein itself. In this case, it can contain 90% or more protein in the product. Whey concentrate, on the other hand, contains roughly 30% – 90% protein and contains more fat than the isolate.

Vegan protein is a plant based supplement that derives from various plant and nut protein sources. One of the most popular forms of plant based protein is pea protein. These products can also include protein from nut sources. This is a non-dairy source of protein. In this case, most suppliers combine pea and rice protein powder and then add some additional amino acids in order for the product 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.

You probably already have a favorite when shopping for a protein supplement, but do you know what ingredients go into this product? If you don’t, you might not be thrilled to find out what is lurking in your powder.

Product regulations vary between countries

The problem with a lot of the brands on the market today is the ingredients come from all over the world. That is not always a bad thing, but that does mean that they could be subjected to different regulation. 

The problem with a lot of the brands on the market today is the ingredients come from all over the world. That is not always a bad thing, but that does mean that they could be subjected to different regulations. 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 production standards for supplement products. For example, if you typically look for organically produced products, you might not be thrilled to find out that a label can say “organic,” but it doesn’t necessarily mean it was grown in the United States on our organic soil. It can be grown in China or a foreign country and still be considered “organic.”

Unfortunately, if the ingredients are coming from China (and a lot of times they are) they could have heavy metals from their soil or their water supply. 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 could 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!

The D2D Supplement Inquiry

The D2D team took a field trip to a national protein supplement provider and purchased the top three selling protein powders

The D2D team visited a national (and very popular) protein supplement provider and inquired what the most popular brands were for each category: vegan, soy, and whey. We purchased the most popular protein supplements in each of these categories. 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, while all three companies were very accommodating, 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 asked Victoria Zupa, ND, a licensed Naturopathic Physician who confirmed that the information provided was particularly vague and we were right be be concerned! Dr. Zupa then educated us as to what questions to ask and how to ask them to receive the correct information from a specific company.

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 very 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.

That being said, we do want to share the results of this analysis 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, but the barium content was 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).”


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 is roughly 0.00227 mg/g, which is relatively high. 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.

Wouldn’t you rather be eating a delicious egg omelet or a juicy piece of chicken – both of which don’t contain metals?

(For more on these metals and the trace or toxic levels that can be found in your food, please visit the World Health Organization.)

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. We also want to emphasize that the best source for protein lies in your chicken or egg sandwich, not a pill, powder or tablet.


“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. <>.

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.