Study that alleges many protein powders contain heavy metals gets big pushback, including threatened legal action

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

iStock / marilyna
iStock / marilyna
A study of the 134 best-selling protein powders released Wednesday by a group called the Clean Label Project found that many of the plant-based proteins tested poorly with higher levels of heavy metals and other toxins. The brands themselves and industry experts pushed back, saying the group is opaque about its methodology and sources of funding.

One industry stakeholder, the Natural Products Association, went so far yesterday as to send a cease and desist letter seeking to squelch the dissemination of the report. NPA executive director Dan Fabricant, PhD, said the group’s funding model is not clear, so it's not immediately apparent who stands to benefit. Fabricant also said that the data was presented in a way as to make the issue of trace amounts of heavy metals and other contaminants to appear as dire as possible.

“Just look at the language and how they use the term ‘detectable levels. It’s all made to look very scandalous and salacious. Everything suggests implicitly that there is a critical public health issue. We believe this is bad for the brands themselves and bad for the industry. The statements are defamatory,​ Fabricant told NutraIngredients-USA.

Proteins tested at third party lab

The Denver-based non profit used Nielsen and Amazon data to select 134 of the top-selling protein powder supplements which it purchased online or off the shelf. These included protein sources from plants, dairy and eggs. The products were sent out for the third parting testing at Ellipse Analytics, an independent lab founded in 2016 in Denver. Ellipse looked for contamination with the heavy metals mercury, lead, arsenic and cadmium; for supply chain contamination such as microbial contamination; and for process contaminants like BPA that could leach in from plastic packaging. The tests results were scored on a one-to-five scale on so-called ‘report cards’ for those brands which had multiple products tested.

The results as portrayed by the report were potentially troubling on the surface. Jacklyn Bowen, the group’s executive director, said the plant-based protein powders tested the worst. Among the talking points for the test results were:

  • Approximately 75% of plant-based proteins had measurable levels of lead. The laboratory discovered that the plant-based protein powders each contained on average twice the amount of lead per serving of other products.
  • In addition to lead, the plant-based protein powders contained mercury, cadmium and arsenic, in several cases above health-based guidelines.
  • 55% of all protein powders tested had measurable levels of BPA, a known endocrine disruptor.
  • Certified organic products averaged twice as much heavy metals.
  • Among the whey proteins, 10% tested with measurable amounts of lead. For the egg-based proteins, none were found to contain lead.

Bowen did admit some of the detection limits were below federal guidelines. But she said consumers have a right to know what’s in the protein products they chose to use, and also have a right to have the information to decide if meeting federal guidelines is good enough.

The fundamental basis of safety of these produts has been called into question. FDA has been extremely diligent about traditional food safety criteria, in looking at things like listeria or salmonella, things that could kill you tomorrow. What we are interested in looking at is things that could affect your health 15 or 20 years down the road,​ Bowen told NutraIngredients-USA.

When I look at this data, on BPA for example, for those companies that say that they meet federal guidelines, well, almost half of your competitors figured out how to put out a product with no BPA in it,​ she said.

As far as her group’s funding is concerned, Bowen said the money comes from donations from consumers, grants, a Clean Label Project certification the group is launching, crowdfunding, and through the sale of products on the website. If a consumer clicks on a protein powder buy button they are taken to an Amazon page to finish the transaction, with 4% going back to the group to support our mission,​ Bowen said.

And as far as the criticism that the report was not peer-reviewed is concerned, Bowen responded that the report is in the process of peer review, but the group believed the issue was pressing enough that consumers needed the information immediately.

The process of having scientific studies peer reviewed is a lengthy one. To us at Clean Label Project, its about relevance. The products that Clean Label Project sampled and tested are the same products found on grocery store shelvesTODAY! Our mission is to provide consumers with scientific data that allows them to make educated decisions about their purchasesidentifying contaminants as they relate to their familieshealth,​ she said.

CRN: ‘Detectable’ doesn’t mean ‘dangerous’

Andrea Wong, PhD, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), said that that insofar as the report found higher than acceptable levels of some contaminants in some products it deserves more scrutiny as a possible call to action to improve the industry. But as a toxicologist, Wong noted that merely detecting a substance doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got a problem.

Consumer online searches for ‘plant-based’ tripled, protein powder dominates category

protein powder Droits d'auteur marekuliasz

The analysis backed by The Clean Label Project found that the plant-based protein powders each contained on average twice the amount of lead per serving of other products.

However, the plant-based protein powder category has been booming in recent years. As more consumers try to add more plants into their diets, plant-based protein is a shining star in the emerging category, making up the majority of both online searches and sales for ‘plant-based’ products, according to market research firm 1010data. READ MORE

A detectable level of a contaminant is not necessarily an unsafe levelit merely means that the instrumentation is sophisticated enough to detect it. It is not surprising that plant-based protein sources may have detectable levels of certain naturally occurring compounds as plants naturally absorb minerals from the soil in which they grow,​ she said.

Wong also said that without a look at the raw data, without more detail on the study and its methodology, it’s hard to come up with an overall assessment of its quality and potential impact.

In the interest of its mission of increased transparency, the Clean Label Project should provide insight into how its product rating system is quantified. Its star rating system appears to be subjective and fails to give consumers the information to make informed purchasing decisions,​ she said.

Brands respond

The worst performing brand of the named companies was Vega, which has been a darling of the plant-based movement. The brand showed strong growth before its 2015 acquisition by White Wave, which is now part of Danone. Vega’s report card said the brand had high levels of the heavy metals. While it scored well on the other three measures, including a four star rating for ‘nutritional completeness’ (a measure of overall protein content per serving), the brand overall received a one star rating.

In a statement, Vega responded that every lot is tested for safety, compliance with federal guideline that that is meets internal quality standards.

We have not seen the raw data on which Clean Label Project based their report, or the full methodology they used, so we cant comment on this particular report at this point in time,​ the company said.

But it did go on to say that, We were surprised by the presented conclusions. . . Plants absorb naturally occurring minerals from the soil which can be reflected in the final product.

Keeping processing at a minimum

Sunwarrior, another plant-based protein brand that tested poorly, also pointed out that heavy metals are naturally occurring in the environment. 

All plants will contain some levels of these, and the processing needed to remove these tiny quantities can degrade the overall nutritional value of the product. As an example, the company said raw spinach typically contains almost 60 mcg of cadmium, which is 85% of the federally mandated amount per serving. While this is less than the allowable level, as it does approach that threshold, could that value be characterized as troubling?

The more processed a food, the less heavy metals it contains. These are removed along with the nutrients, minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, and enzymes that make living foods great. At Sunwarrior, our aim is to get it as close to nature as possible which means to minimize the damage of high heat by using low heat and minimal processing. Whole foods will always naturally contain some heavy metals,​ said Sunwarrior spokesperson Susanna Kalnes.

Heavy metal content in organic ingredients

The issue of heavy metal content in organic produce has been a vexing one for a number of years. Tyler Lorenzen, president of Puris, suppliers of organic pea protein, said his company has arranged its supply chain to minimize these as much as possible.

Weve heard this argument before. There are various heavy metals that are naturally occurring in the environment,​ he said.

Lorenzen said the issue has gained traction as the demand for organic ingredients has ramped up faster than domestic producers can bring new certified fields into production. A responsible supplier has to be very careful to source from areas with only background levels of metals or other contaminants, and avoid areas where industrial deposition could be an issue, he said.

We grow everything in the United States. A lot of the organic pea protein on the market can include peas that were grown in China or could have been processed in China. We go to the Nth degree in our supply chain, and we can hit all of the Prop 65 limits,​ Lorenzen said.

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