Before you begin reading this post, I would recommend you first read this blogpost called, “A Registered Dietitian’s Guide About Protein: Providing Recommendations & Debunking Misconceptions”. It provides you with important basics of protein. More specifically, you’ll learn about how much protein is recommended, possible effects from higher protein diets, whole food sources of protein, if supplements are needed, and I even broke down a few misconceptions.
In this blogpost, I will be discussing protein supplements in greater depth & will give a little insight as to why I think we need to approach protein supplements with extra caution. Here we go!
The protein and amino acid supplement market is a big business, a $37 billion/year industry to be exact, and unfortunately some people’s decision to use them is based more on slick marketing claims than anything else. Don’t let that be you.
Types of Protein Powders There are many different types of protein powders: whey, casein, soy, pea, rice, hemp, egg, mixed plant proteins, and more. Every protein powder is different & has varying amino acid profiles. The powders may include other ingredients such as added sugars, artificial flavoring, thickeners, vitamins, minerals, etc. The amount of protein per scoop can vary from 10 to 20 grams. Supplements used for building muscle contain relatively more protein, and those used for weight loss contain relatively less. Protein powders are an easy and convenient source of protein. For those who find it challenging to meet protein recommendations, protein powder offers an easy solution. However, unless your diet is already lacking in protein, supplements won’t make a big difference. In fact, there are some risks to be aware of…
“Adding protein powder to a glass of milk or a smoothie may seem like a simple way to boost your health. But be careful: a scoop of chocolate or vanilla protein powder can harbor health risks. They may contain added sugar, calories, or even toxic chemicals.” -Hidden Dangers of Protein Powders, Harvard Health Letter
Risks Associated with Protein Supplements The biggest risk to consider when using a protein powder is the fact that protein supplements are a dietary supplement. Because of this, they are not regulated by the FDA the same way as pharmaceutical products. The FDA leaves it up to manufacturers to evaluate the safety and labeling of products. Which in many cases, manufactures do NOT test supplements for toxins and many fail to disclose harmful ingredients in their products. This means there’s no way to know if a protein powder contains what they claim. In my opinion, not knowing what ingredients are actually in supplements is scary and often not worth the risk.
Many independent testing labs have found dangerous contaminates in protein powders. These metals can accumulate in your tissues over time and lead to chronic toxicity. For example, in 2018, a nonprofit group called the Clean Label Project released a report about toxins in protein powders. Researchers screened 134 products for 130 types of toxins and found that many protein powders contained heavy metals (lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury), bisphenol-A A (BPA, which is used to make plastic), pesticides, or other contaminants with links to cancer and other health conditions. Some toxins were present in significant quantities. For example, one protein powder contained 25 times the allowed limit of BPA. Maybe you’re wondering the same thing as I did…how could protein powder contain so many contaminants? The Clean Label Project points to manufacturing processes of the existence of toxins in soil (absorbed by plants that are made into protein powders). Other risk to be aware of when taking a protein supplement include:
- We don’t know the long-term effects. There are limited data on the possible side effects of high protein intake from supplements. Basically more studies are needed.
- It may cause digestive distress. People with dairy allergies or trouble digesting lactose [milk sugar] can experience gastrointestinal discomfort if they use a milk-based protein powder.
- It may be high in added sugars and calories. Some protein powders have little added sugar, and others have a lot (as much as 23 grams per scoop).
- Relying too much on protein shakes can result in excluding other beneficial nutrients from your diet. For example, food-based proteins can also provide you with iron, calcium, heart-healthy fats and vitamin B-12 that may be missing in supplements. My professional advice is that if you do consume a protein shake, do NOT consume it in place of meal. Instead, make it part of your meal and pair it with some fiber, carbs, and healthy fats. This makes for a well-balanced meal and provides greater satisfaction.
Dietary Supplement Industry Facts Not to mention…whole food is much much easier on the wallet. In fact, dietary supplement industry is a $37 billion-a- year year business in the U.S., according to the National Institutes of Health. I wish it wasn’t this way, but almost always it comes down to money and not the public’s best interest.
Conclusion In the end, I will leave it up to you to decide what is the right thing for you. You’re the expert and owner of your body. Just remember… protein powders, like other nutritional supplements, are NOT regulated like food. If you do choose to consume protein supplements make sure to be your advocate by doing research, reading the ingredients label, and knocking on wood that you are investing in a trustworthy company with an honest label.