Are Plant-Based Protein Powders Contaminated with Heavy Metals?

A recent Consumer Reports article caused quite a stir regarding the safety of consuming plant-based proteins. The report cites research by The Clean Label Project and ranks protein powders based on different measures of contamination. Here’s why things get a little fishy.

Two of the top five worst proteins, according to the report, were Garden of Life and Vega’s plant-based proteins, and 75% of the plant-based proteins surveyed had ‘measurable levels’ of lead, whereas the dairy and egg proteins were rated far better. If you’ve read much on relative contamination risk, this should really surprise you because virtually all environmental contaminants are concentrated up the food chain, often by a hundred or even a thousand fold. All of the food contamination an animal eats in it’s lifetime is stored within it’s body for a period of time, and often for life (you can learn more about bioaccumulation in this on post endocrine disruptor pollutants) . So why then were the plant-based proteins in this study given the worst ratings, while all of the ‘cleanest’ proteins in the top five were whey protein – derived from cow’s milk?

The Clean Label Project explains this is due to plants’ ability to absorb heavy metals from the soil, which sounds logical for an instant or two, but what about all those plants the cow ate during it’s lifetime? Something doesn’t add up.

Under scrutiny, The Clean Label Project does not appear to be as unbiased as it seems. The first (and biggest) red flag is that they won’t release any of their data, and so none if it is peer-reviewed. This means they could literally be making every bit of it up and we’d never know. Second, they use a 1-5 star scoring system to rate how contaminated each of the products tested are, rather than listing the levels of each contaminant they found. So what the hell does a 3 out of 5 stars mean for consumer risk?! They mention almost every plant-based protein tested had ‘measurable’ lead levels. So does drinking water. If you have sensitive enough instruments anything is measurable, and dosage is incredibly important in determining risk to consumer health. Third, The Clean Label Project does not list it’s funding for this study. Are we coming up with any hypothetical scenarios as to why the dairy and egg proteins scored so well? The organization also boasts independent review of it’s data by an outside lab, Eclipse Analytics, which just so happens to be the company the Executive Director of The Clean Label Project used to work for – as President.

Unfortunately, in spite any undisclosed conflicts of interest, this article is being shared widely and causing quite a bit of concern. So what are you to do?

Remember, you absolutely do not NEED protein powder. Humans have existed for millions of years without it, and there are many athletes, plant-based and otherwise, who compete at an elite level without it. Whole foods should be the foundation of everyone’s diet, and that should be your #1 source for protein too.

If you do want to supplement with protein, I wouldn’t lose sleep over this Consumer Report article. Since there is no supporting data or peer review to back up their claims, The Clean Label Project’s conclusions carry no weight. And while logic (and virtually all evidence I’ve seen outside this study) would support plant proteins as being far less contaminated than animal proteins, if you’re not convinced remember that plant protein will naturally be cholesterol free, lower in saturated fat, and much higher in antioxidants regardless!

Every processed food, such as a protein supplement, does run the risk of contamination from the refining process as well as things like additives and packaging, which is why I consume Clean Machine‘s protein. Their Clean Green Protein is based on Lentein, a whole plant that is raised via aquaculture (no soil contamination), and exceeds both the FDA’s Certified Good Manufacturing Practices and the much stricter California Proposition 65 for heavy metals, and meets the FDA’s highest consumer safety rating of GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe). Full disclosure: I’m sponsored by Clean Machine and receive a commission on sales from purchases made with my discount code. But I’m not sharing it in this post – you’ll have to track it down if you’re curious!

Key takeaways:

  • The report referenced above is of dubious scientific value
  • It’s unlikely that plant-derived protein powders are more contaminated than animal-based protein powders because:
    • Contamination accumulates in animal tissue
    • Animals like cows, for example, consume many more tons of plants (that are heavily sprayed with pesticides that would be deemed unsafe for human consumption)
  • If you’re concerned, remember that there is no actual requirement for protein supplementation!