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Watchdog group finds hidden toxins in protein powders such as lead, arsenic and BPA

Posted at 1:09 PM, May 07, 2018

Whether you start your day blending protein powder into your breakfast smoothie or drinking a protein shake after a workout, you really need to know what you’re putting into your body. 

Scripps station WXYZ in Detroit found out there are hidden ingredients in many protein powders that could put your health at risk.  

With your family always on-the-go, it can be hard to eat right. Getting the recommended daily amount of protein has become so much easier with all of the supplements available.  Cleanlabelproject.org checked out several protein powders to see if they really are good for you.  


Personal trainer Leslie Derrick has made it her mission to stay healthy. The mother of three from Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan pushes her clients hard, both in the gym and when it comes to eating right. 

WXYZ brought six popular protein powders to the gym where we asked Derrick and her clients to look at the labels and tell us which of them seemed the best and the worst. 

"There's just so many out there that you would just grab one and hope it has nothing in it. There is no way to know, it's not listed on the label," Derrick said.  

"I think a lot of people when they're choosing their protein shakes-- they are looking at calories, protein and carbs. You're not necessarily looking at all the ingredients," class member Dory Zontini said. 

Cleanlabelproject.org is a watch dog for consumers. In the past, they have tested baby food, baby formula and pet food. This time they bought 137 of Amazon's top selling protein powders and sent them to a lab. What they found was alarming. They found various toxins in your supplements.  

 "Things like heavy metals, lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury, antibiotic residues, pesticide residues, plasticizers like BPA, BPS and many others," Executive Director Jackie Bowen said. 

 The study showed some of the dirtiest results were organic and surprisingly, those were some of the most popular brands. 

"I think you can't trust the organic label," Derrick said. 

"What we found is that plant-based protein powders had high levels of arsenic as well as cadmium which we think comes potentially from contaminated soils," Bowen adds. 

"Unfortunately, because the supplement industry is not regulated, there is really no safe way to validate what is in the nutritional supplements so you look for credibility and really good reputation," said  Mayssoun Hamade, a dietitian from St. John-Providence Hospital. 

Biochem Vanilla Whey was one of the healthiest from the group WXYZ showed to the moms. The tests showed no detectable levels of arsenic, mercury, lead or BPA and it was one of the cleanest for cadmium.  

 The five cleanest products happened to be whey-based and vanilla-based products, according to the study.  

"We’ve seen studies show many of these fillers and metabolic compounds have contributed to certain types of cancers," Hamade said.  

All of the women WXYZ spoke to said they were surprised with the results, and they are now second guessing using protein powders. Hamade said the FDA website has great recipes for healthy protein rich smoothies without supplements.  

"My recommendation would be go natural. Use the eggs, use the dairy, use the meats and poultry and beans and nuts – that should be the best source of protein," according to Hamade. 

In April, the government accountability office, which is an independent, unbiased agency that works for Congress issued a report to the FDA encouraging them to create risk assessments for heavy metal contamination within food.  

Vega released the following statement:

We have been made aware of a recent report released by the Clean Label Project on protein powders. We were surprised by the presented conclusions. At Vega the trust and safety of our consumers is our top priority.

Plants absorb naturally occurring minerals from the soil which can be reflected in the final product. Our robust Quality Assurance programs ensure our products are compliant with our own rigorous internal standards, as well as all government regulations. 

We are proud that Vega products are made with only real, whole food plant-based ingredients condensed into one nutrient-dense scoop. No artificial or synthetic ingredients are used in our products. 

We have not seen the raw data on which Clean Label Project based their report, or the full methodology they used, so we can’t comment on this particular report at this point in time. We however want to reassure our consumers that we test every single lot of Vega protein to ensure our products are safe, compliant and nutrient-dense, and meet our high quality standards.


Purely Inspired released the following statement in part:

“Our Organic Protein fully meets federal food standards, as outlined by the FDA in the Federal Register, and the National Organic Program (NOP) standards as outlined by the USDA. To comply with the NOP standards, our product must only be manufactured with approved ingredients, and cannot contain any amounts of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers or antibiotics. Our products also have earned the Non-GMO seal, which means not a single ingredient we put into our products is genetically modified.


Sunwarrior released the following statement:

Heavy metals are naturally occurring in many fruits and vegetables that grow in the ground.  Because of this, plant-based protein powders will always have traceable amounts of heavy metals in them, particularly when compared with whey proteins.  That said, we want to make sure this concept is not blown out of proportion.  When comparing the heavy metals found in Sunwarrior protein powders to real, whole vegetables and fruits, the Cadmium found in Sunwarrior is 76% less than a cup of spinach, the Lead found in Sunwarrior is 68% less than an average size avocado, and the Arsenic found in Sunwarrior is 47% less than an average size peach.


Because our proteins come entirely from organic plants, we will never be able to fully eradicate heavy metals in our supplements.  And the same thing holds true for our competitors in the plant-based protein space.  But rest assured, Sunwarrior takes great pride in knowing and thoroughly vetting our sources to produce quality proteins that are not only safe to consume by EU, FDA and WHO standards, but are also Certified Organic, Non-GMO Project Verified.