Reality check: Does your protein powder contain heavy metals and other toxins?

Click to play video: 'Does your protein powder contain heavy metals and other toxins?' Does your protein powder contain heavy metals and other toxins?
WATCH: A new study finds heavy metals, BPA and other compounds in protein powders – Mar 7, 2018

Sure your morning smoothie is full of vitamins and minerals – but did you count on it having a serving of heavy metals in there as well?

According to a recent study done by the Clean Label Project, there is a possibility that the protein powder you mix into your smoothies could contain heavy metals like lead or cadmium, chemicals like BPA or even pesticides.

READ MORE: Eating crickets goes mainstream as protein alternative hits Canadian shelves

The non-profit organization tested 134 protein powder products from 52 brands and screened them for over 130 compounds. The 134 products were selected according to Nielsen and Amazon’s best-seller list.

Overall, 74 per cent of the products tested were found to have detectable levels of cadmium; 70 per cent were found to have lead and 55 per cent had BPA.

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(Cadmium is an active component in battery acid, while BPA is commonly found in plastic water bottles, the report details.)

Other toxins found in both plant-based and animal-based protein powder products included arsenic, mercury and pesticides.

While organic samples tested had 40 per cent less BPA than non-organic samples, they did have on average over two times the amount of heavy metals like lead, arsenic and cadmium than non-organic products.

And products that were plant-based were found to have the worst outcomes as well. Products with egg as a protein source, however, tested cleaner.

The top five products the Clean Label Project identified were Puori, BioChem and BodyFortress, Performix and Pure Protein. The bottom five were Vega, 360Cut, Quest, Nature’s Best and Garden of Life.

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Following this report’s findings, however, is there anything to really worry about?

“There are levels of these compounds – mercury, cadmium, arsenic, etc. – in these products that I think both health professionals and the average consumer would prefer there not to be,” registered dietitian Andy De Santis says. “It’s important to start by saying that the compounds tested in this study are all naturally occurring, many of which are found in trace levels in the soil in which food is grown.”

This means that compounds, like cadmium, already exist in very low levels in some of the foods we eat every day, he says.

This aligns with what Michael Rogers, associate professor and Canadian Research Chair in food nanotechnology, told Global News last year after the Clean Label Project found arsenic, cadmium and other chemicals in baby formulas.

According to Rogers, arsenic, lead and cadmium are all naturally occurring in the environment.

But it’s hard to know for sure what levels were detected in the protein powder as raw data is not available, but it does seem that some powders tested were much higher than what would naturally occur in food, De Santis says.

READ MORE: Canadian docs made a protein powder specifically for seniors’ muscles. Here’s why

“The levels are obviously not so high that they cause acute health effects, but could they be problematic in the long term?” he asks. “I don’t believe we have any evidence to suggest that right now but it could certainly become an area of interest going forward.”

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Since last year, only two protein powder products have been recalled by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), both of which were recalled due to undeclared milk – Dynawhey brand and Maximus brand. A protein shake by Soy Complete was also recalled earlier this year due to the same reason.

If you are concerned about the levels of chemicals present in your protein powder, or any other food product, the government offers a list of contaminants and other adulterating substances commonly found in foods in Canada.

It also should be known that Health Canada does establish limits on standards and tolerances on maximum residue limits and maximum levels of chemical residues and contaminants in foods. The CFIA also tests foods available in Canada. If a test reveals chemical and/or contaminant levels are above the established limits, then the results are referred to Health Canada for a risk assessment. CFIA then makes the final decision on whether the products need to be seized or recalled.

As for where Health Canada stands on BPA exposure, the government body is OK with the current level of BPA found in products sold in Canada.

“Health Canada’s Food Directorate has concluded that the current dietary exposure to BPA through food packaging uses is not expected to pose a health risk to the general population, inducing newborns and infants,” they say on their website.

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Generally speaking, however, De Santis would rather people stay clear of protein powders.

“Honestly, the first thing I will say about protein powders is that you do not need them,” he says. “They are marketed as some sort of superior health solution but I would honestly prefer that my clients get their protein from whole foods such as lean meats, tofu, dairy and alternatives, legumes, nuts, seeds and so on.”

To see the full list of tested products by the Clean Label Project, click here.

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