Protein Drinks and Heavy Metals
Sunday, June 20, 2010
LifeTime WeightLoss in Supplements, Tom Nikkola, protein powder

Written by Tom Nikkola - Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

By now you’ve likely come across an alert on Consumer Reports’ article about heavy metals in protein drinks. The article was part of their most recent magazine. It led to a lot of questions, confusion and unnecessary fears around the use of protein drinks. If you heard about the article, hopefully this will serve to help clarify any lingering questions you may have. Hopefully it will also serve to put your mind at ease and allow you to continue using your favorite protein shake on a regular basis.

Heavy Metals in Our Diet

Before reviewing the levels of heavy metals in protein powders, it may help to understand the levels of heavy metals in our food supply in general. That way you can better understand what the levels in the protein powders actually were. Heavy metals have become an increasingly common part of our food supply. They have made their way into our food supply through industrial processing. The heavy metals released from industrial processing can show up in the air we breathe, water we drink or the food we eat. A Washington Post article last December explained that the government was encouraging farmers to spread coal wastes over their farms as a way to dispose of the waste. The ash contained mercury, arsenic, lead and other heavy metals.2 It was a topic of obvious controversy, as the spread of those heavy metals would likely be absorbed by the crops that would grow in those soils. Heavy metals can also be found in fertilizers, which are then absorbed into crops.

Trying to determine the level of heavy metals Americans are exposed to through our diet and lifestyle is a challenge. There seems to be a lack of official reporting on the subject. Or, if there is documentation it is difficult to find it. A Canadian report on heavy metal consumption from 2003 provides some insight on were heavy metals are found in our food system. The following was reported as top 10 sources of cadmium and lead levels in Canadian foods, and the concentration of those metals in the foods:3

 

Cadmium (ppm)

 

Lead (ppm)

 

1

Shelled seeds

0.48

 

Frozen dinners

0.70

2

Organ meats, liver, and kidney

0.15

 

Fish Burger

0.40

3

Cabbage

0.11

 

Raisins

0.08

4

Potato Chips

0.10

 

Organ meats, liver and kidney

0.04

5

Peanut butter and peanuts

0.07

 

Frozen entrée – boiled

0.04

6

French fries

0.06

 

Muffins

0.04

7

Celery

0.06

 

Peaches

0.04

8

Cookies

0.06

 

Wine

0.03

9

Cereals, wheat and bran

0.05

 

Ground Beef

0.03

10

Potatoes, boiled with skin on

0.04

 

Danish and Donuts

0.03

Arsenic is another common heavy metal in our food supply. Although exact amounts were not disclosed, according to the CDC, the largest amounts of arsenic in our diet comes from seafood, rice and rice cereal, mushrooms and poultry. The average daily intake of arsenic is about 50 µg (micrograms) per person.4 Average daily cadmium intake is approximately 30-50 µg.5

Putting Things in Perspective

A little background on heavy metals was important to better understand the issues related to heavy metals in the protein drinks mentioned in the consumer reports article. Of course, fully understanding the effects of heavy metals in our food system requires much more discussion than the paragraphs above. Consumer Reports looked at four heavy metals: arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury. The total levels of heavy metals in the products they selected were somewhat misleading because the article used a “three servings per day” measurement to build the case of heavy metals. For most of the protein shakes, three servings provided much more protein than an individual would normally consume through supplements. Judging the products on three servings per day would be like suggesting people eat three servings of fish every day and then showing how fish shouldn’t be eaten because of the levels of mercury.

Most people use one to two servings per day which would put the heavy metal levels in those products at more than safe levels. At the highest end of protein consumption, three servings of GNC’s Pro Performance provides 180 grams of protein and EAS Myoplex Original Dark Chocolate Shake provides 126 grams. It’s unlikely an individual would have any need to consume such a high amount of protein through supplements each day. Instead, 30-60 grams through supplements is more typical. The lab results would have been far less controversial if a more normal number of servings had been used.

The report also questioned the need for any protein powder use at all. The author referenced the minimum daily protein intakes of .8 g/kg body weight as what people should eat on a daily basis. This really is a minimum amount, though, as there is significant evidence to support higher protein intakes for health, weight management and performance. For those looking for more optimal levels of protein intake, protein shakes are convenient, great-tasting, and can provide additional benefits beyond the extra protein alone.

One last point to make on the products which were mentioned is that they have a wide range of serving sizes. On the lowest end, Solgar’s Whey to Go has only 60 grams of powder in three servings (see chart below), whereas a few of the products had more than 200 grams of powder in three servings. Some were just whey protein, others were more of a meal replacement with other added health-promoting ingredients. This makes it difficult to use their 15-product study impossible to create a “good, better, best” list from it. When you compare the use of one to two servings of the protein powders with the heavy metal levels in many other foods in our diet, they can provide a very safe means of increasing protein intake.

How do heavy metals end up in protein shakes?

Whey protein is the most common protein powder used in protein shakes. It makes up the largest part of the ingredients in each of the shakes mentioned in the study. Whey comes from milk, so it begs the question as to whether milk may be a potential source for the heavy metals. Added minerals may also be a source of heavy metals. Minerals are natural organic substances which have always been a part of the earth. Because they come from the ground, they have the potential to carry a small amount of heavy metals with them. Many protein powders will have added herbs or other plant-based ingredients which may carry small amounts of heavy metals with them from the soil they grew in. The two products with the highest levels of arsenic, Cytosport’s Muscle Milk and EAS’s Myoplex are both ready-to-drink (RTD) shakes, meaning they are already mixed with water. Since water is a common source of arsenic, it’s possible this is the source of the higher levels found in those products. Buying a protein powder and mixing it with filtered water is an easy way to avoid extra arsenic intake.

Contrary to what many people think, nutritional supplements are regulated by the FDA, and have been since 1994 under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). This helps ensure product quality, but does not guarantee it. To make sure supplements do not contain unwanted contaminants or chemicals, it’s best to make sure your supplements are manufactured by reputable companies. There is a dramatic difference in the quality of products you can purchase. Like many other things, you really do get what you pay for. Since the purpose of using dietary supplements is to enhance your health status, spend the extra money on quality products.

From the Consumer Reports article

How does FastFuel Complete Compare?

You may wonder “how does the Life Time Fast Fuel Complete compare? Expecting that question, we sent our product out to a third-party company for testing. We randomly test our products anyway, but in light of the news on the CR article, we had additional testing done. As expected, the amounts of heavy metals in our products, if any were detected at all, were incredibly small. As an organization, we have always been very particular about the companies we have manufacturing our products and feel this is further evidence of the quality of the Life Time products. FastFuel Complete heavy metal levels were tested and came back as follows:

 

Arsenic

Cadmium

Lead

Mercury

Vanilla FFC (per serv)

.0327 ppm / 2.05 µg

<10 ppb / below level of detection

<10 ppb / below level of detection

<10 ppb / below level of detection

Chocolate FFC (per serv)

.0524 ppm / 3.35 µg

.0137 ppm / 0.88 µg

.0111 ppb / 0.70 µg

<10 ppb / below level of detection

Note that the lowest level of detection is 10 parts per billion (ppb), or .010 parts per million (ppm). The lab test results can be downloaded from myLT here: Vanilla FastFuel Complete Chocolate FastFuel Complete

Summary

Heavy metals consumption is a serious issue, but unless your diet relies 100% on protein shakes, it is unlikely your protein shake will be a major problem. There are many health-promoting reasons to use a protein shake, just as there is to eat leafy vegetables, fish and drink water. As a consumer, it is a good idea to stay informed as to how heavy metals may increasingly enter the food system. This becomes a topic of diet as well as food policy.

References:

  1. Auroville Innovative Urban Management IND-015. Heavy metals and pesticides residue in the foodstuff. Annexes Final Report. October, 2003
  2. Associated Press. U.S. wants farmers to use coal waste on fields. Washington Post. December 23, 2009
  3. DeNoon D. Heavy Metals Found in Wine. WebMD October 29, 2008 (http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/food-poisoning/news/20081029/heavy-metals-found-in-wine)
  4. Environmental Defence Canada. Metallic Lunch: An Analysis of Heavy Metals in the Candiain Diet. Environmental Defense Canada Report. May, 2003
  5. Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry. Public Health Statement for Arsenic. Department of Health and Human Services. August, 2007 (http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/phs2.html)
  6. Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry. Case Studies in Environmental Medicine: Cadmium Toxicity. Center for Disease Control. May, 12 2008 (http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/cadmium/docs/cadmium.pdf)

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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