An investigation on protein drinks published in the July edition of Consumer Reports magazine, which was then picked up by CBS and NPR, has been causing waves of concern or even alarm to ripple through the fitness and bodybuilding world. Supplement companies are up in arms and people are wondering whether they should stop drinking protein shakes after the magazine said they tested 15 protein drinks for heavy metals (arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury) and 3 of them came up above the proposed safe limits…
“We 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” said Consumer Reports.
“Concentrations in most products were relatively low,” continued the article, “but when taking into account the large serving size suggested, the number of micrograms per day for a few of the products was high compared with most others tested.”
Out of the 15 products tested, the following exceeded the U.S. Pharmocopeia (USP) suggested limits for safety:
EAS Myoplex Original Rich Dark Chocolate (ready to drink liquid): 16.9 arsenic, 5.1 cadmium
Muscle Milk chocolate powder: 12.2 arsenic, 5.6 cadmium, 13.5 lead, 0.7 mercury
Muscle Milk Vanilla Cream: 12.2 lead
* Amounts in micrograms
So, if you use protein drinks should you be worried? Should you stop drinking them? Well, it appears disconcerting that certain brands are high in these metals, but keep in mind that:
(1) Some people and organizations are questioning the choice of 3rd party lab used by Consumer reports, as well as the definitions for acceptable safe levels.
(2) These test results showed that that 12 out of 15 products were within safe limits even at high doses (or had zero heavy metals present), and
(3) Products which tested high were tested based on very large doses. Therefore, this might be a red flag only for very heavy users (three shakes a day or up to 8 scoops) of specific products (not protein powder in general)
Heavy metal contamination is a particular health concern for certain populations including infants, growing young children, women of childbearing age who plan to have kids soon, pregnant women, nursing women.
However, I don’t believe this report is a reason for panic or giving up moderate use of protein supplements.
Due to all the publicity, I imagine that the few companies named will write rebuttals or responses, and if necessary, simply tighten up their quality control. Probably, the industry in general will start posting more information on their testing, safety and quality standards. Some companies have reassuringly already done so on their websites (which has probably boosted their sales, not hurt them).
I think this is mostly a non-issue.
Consumer Reports is a favorite publication for many people researching purchases of cars, electronics and appliances. They were probably well-intentioned in their protein article (although who knows what underlying biases might be there).
In the future, however, I’d like to see these types of tests performed under scientific scrutiny and get the results published in a peer reviewed journal. This way, we can review the test results, read about the experimental methods and get the evidence-based facts about protein requirements and contaminant safety standards, rather than depend on journalists whose usual job is comparing brands of toasters.
On a related note, the NSF has questioned the lab/testing methods used in this story:
NSF International cannot comment on the test results reported in the July 2010, Consumer Reports article on protein drinks. It omits critical information about the laboratory that performed the test and its accreditation qualifications. ISO 17025 accreditation is critical for any laboratory testing for heavy metals in dietary supplements and nutritional products. The article also omits the test methods used, analytical preparation, sample size, the basis of their risk assessment, detection limits, quality control data and instrumentation used for this report.
While it’s fine and good that this info was published, what really bothers me about the write up is that it seems their journalists are using these test results as ammo to attack the entire idea of taking protein supplements and eating a high protein diet.
“You don’t need extra protein” and “high protein diets damage your kidneys,” claim Consumer Reports. They also quote a dietitian who said the body can only utilize 5 to 9 grams of protein per hour. I’d like to see a research citation on that one!
They are clearly perpetuating some of the same stupid myths about protein that bodybuilders and strength athletes have had to debunk for years.
When mentioning how cadmium is toxic to the kidney, they added, “the way that high protein is bad for your kidneys.” That is false. A high protein diet (on par with what a strength athlete would reasonably consume), is not damaging to a healthy kidney.
High protein diets are contraindicated for patients who already have kidney disease and caution is warranted in certain populations where risk of sub-clinical kidney conditions may be present or where there is kidney disease predisposition. That’s not the same as saying eating a high protein diet causes kidney disease.
It’s quite true that there’s a “more is better” mentality among many muscle-seekers and protein supplement marketing often feeds right into that. The consumer may be told - via advertisement or editorial - to take protein drinks multiple times every day (better for sales than recommending occasional or light use only when needed, right?)
Protein marketing can sometimes border on the outrageous today - with all kinds of claims made for muscle gain, fat loss, enhanced performance and even anti-aging. The truth is, protein supplements are just food - powdered or liquid food - they’re NOT magic! A lot of muscle and fitness fanatics today depend way too much on supplements and not enough on whole, natural foods.
How many people actually drink 3 protein shakes a day, every day (21 a week)? I don’t know. No one in my circle does, and it’s not something I recommend. In my Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle program, I recommend eating mostly whole food, eating a variety of foods and using protein shakes or powders as an occasional supplement for convenience or if you need a supplement to help you meet your optimum level of intake.
Personally, I use protein powder once a day in my oatmeal and I enjoy an occasional protein shake - you can make some pretty tasty smoothies if you add things like fruit, peanut butter, ice, etc.. I don’t plan on stopping.
Some people are freaking out over this. I know the personality type: certain people will say, ‘No way, if there’s ANY heavy metal in any protein drinks I’m not taking them at all! Why take a chance?” Seems prudent, except that most of the protein drinks tested were well within safety limits and all were within limits with more moderate usage.
Besides, small exposure is inevitable anyway. What’s in the whole food you’re eating? If you pressed the issue, you could find some substance to gripe about - including heavy metals - in many of the foods you eat daily right now - yes, the so called “clean foods” - dairy products, fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, shellfish, etc.
(1) Too much of anything can be bad for you, so don’t go crazy with protein drinks or protein foods (or too much of any one type of food).
(2) Avoid diets that make you dependent on protein shakes or meal replacement supplements
(3) Don’t believe everything you read in the mainstream media until you check out the real science for yourself
(4) Use consumer reports when you want to know what car or camcorder to buy. Take their bodybuilding and sports nutrition info with a grain of salt.
NSF statement about consumer reports story
Consumer reports online write up (the full 5-page article in only in the print edition: July 2010 issue):
Here’s the CBS story:
Video clip (CBS News):
Disclosure: I have no affiliations or associations of any kind with any protein or supplement companies.
Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural (steroid-free) bodybuilder, fitness writer and author of Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle (e-book) and the national bestseller, The Body Fat Solution. Tom has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Oprah Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine, as well as on dozens of radio shows including Sirius Satellite Radio, ESPN-1250 and WCBS. Tom is also the founder and CEO of the premier fat loss support community, the Burn The Fat Inner Circle
Published on 10 June, 2010