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Proceed with Caution: What’s in Your Protein Powder?

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Protein powder

Most protein powders on the market today contain whey, soy, or casein. But what else? Consumers who look to protein powder as a nutritional supplement may be surprised to learn that, although they are ingested, protein powders are unregulated in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides guidelines for food products and additives, but there is no mandate for protein powder producers to follow these guidelines. A good overview of limits for food additives and substances for FDA regulations can be found here:
www.fda.gov/food/ingredientspackaginglabeling/foodadditivesingredients/

Hidden hazards?

Protein powders may contain unlisted ingredients. Plants can absorb heavy metals from the soil, which can then be passed along in the protein powder.

Testing protein powder with the Vanta handheld XRF analyzer

We took the opportunity to test four protein powders using the Vanta handheld X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyzer. For this experiment, we used a Vanta VMW model in GeoChem mode. The portable Vanta analyzer can perform accurate element analysis of protein powders in just a few seconds.

FlexoFORM

Results

For the protein powders we tested, there were no indications of lead (Pb) or cadmium (Cd) content. However, we did see elevated levels of bromine (Br), a known carcinogen (a substance capable of causing cancer). It’s possible that the bromine came from a pesticide that was on plant matter used to make the protein powder, or it could even be from an additive called potassium bromate. The use of potassium bromate in products that consumers ingest is banned in the EU, Canada, and several other countries. While the FDA does place limits on the acceptable amount of bromine in food products, the US is one of the few countries that doesn’t ban outright the use of bromine-based additives.

Heavy metals in various protein supplements Results in PPM. Errors shown are 1-sigma, except for non-detects ("ND") which show 3-sigma errors
SampleChromium+/-Bromine+/-Arsenic+/-Cadmium+/-Lead+/-Mercury+/-
Sample 1 ND 6 4.6 1 ND 3 ND 4 ND 3 ND 3
Sample 2 17 2 ND 3 ND 3 ND 3 ND 3 ND 3
Sample 3 ND 6 13.8 1 ND 3 ND 3 ND 3 ND 3
Sample 4 ND 6 15.4 1 ND 3 ND 3 ND 3 ND 3

Ensuring what you eat is safe

Consumer safety is paramount, especially when dealing with the foods and supplements people eat. The Vanta XRF analyzer can effectively screen for several hazardous substances, offering important information for consumers, regulators, and manufacturers of food products. The Clean Label Project did a study of protein powder and found similar results: www.cleanlabelproject.org/protein-powder/. With all this data in hand, “watch what you eat” takes on new significance, as you can make much more informed decisions about what is healthy and safe for you to eat.

Sources

www.consumerreports.org/cro/2012/04/protein-drinks/index.htm
www.cnn.com/2017/12/06/health/protein-powder-pros-cons/index.html
www.cleanlabelproject.org/protein-powder/

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Applications Scientist, Analytical Instruments

Dillon McDowell is an Applications Scientist at Olympus, specializing in using X-ray fluorescence (XRF) and other analytical technologies in alloy, precious metals, and regulatory (RoHS, and consumer product safety) applications. Before joining Olympus, Dillon was a research assistant at Northeastern university’s Nanomagnetism Research Group. Dillon has a BS in physics and MS in mechanical engineering from Northeastern University and has been published in the Journal of Material Chemistry C.

January 8, 2019
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