Protein powders can be a powerful workout and fitness supplement, but are they really healthy? We took a closer look.
For athletes, fitness enthusiasts and people just looking to build a little muscle, protein powders have been a go-to source of fuel for years now. And when you think about the purported benefits, it’s easy to understand why: You get a big boost of protein for muscle-building, without all the fat, carbs and other fillers that come from many other foods.
A closer look at the powders
However, a few recent studies have noted that protein powders may not be all they’re cracked up to be. In fact, some of them could be potentially harmful. In a 2018 study conducted by the non-profit group the Clean Label Project, the group found that 74 percent of the products had detectable levels of the heavy metal cadmium, while 70 percent contained lead. BPA, another potentially harmful chemical was also found in 55 percent of the powders tested, and arsenic was also detected in some of the powders.
Of the products tested, the ones derived from plant-based proteins seemed to have the highest levels of heavy metals, while those made mainly from egg-based or whey protein had the lowest. Considering some levels of heavy metals in the soil, as well as plants that grow in that soil, are natural, several protein powder manufacturers have responded to the study results by saying that the levels found in their products are a normal result of this.
Other Issues with Protein Powder
Jason Stevenson, a registered dietitian and board-certified sports dietitian in Miami, Florida, says that protein powders can cause other concerns beyond the results of the recent study. “In general, protein powder consumption is safe, but some people think more is better,” he says. “Evidence suggests that certain types of protein can hinder athletic performance by producing excess ammonia, resulting in fatigue. Excess protein may also tax the kidneys, and the result is a more acidic environment called metabolic acidosis. Although this is more likely to occur in individuals with an existing kidney disorder, I often see consumption of protein powders offsetting the consumption of other healthy, more alkaline-based foods such fruits and vegetables.”
Where protein powders have their place
Despite all this, Stevenson says that protein powders can still have their place in a healthy diet. The key is using them at the right times and in a responsible manner. “The main benefit of using protein powders is that it helps fitness enthusiasts and athletes meet their protein requirements when normally it would be difficult to obtain through eating alone,” he says. “Some athletes expend so much energy during training; they cannot eat enough to recover. Protein powder helps narrow the gap.”
Which powder is right for you?
If you think protein powder has a place in your diet, then Stevenson has a few tips to help you choose one. The recent study suggests that whey- or egg-based powders may have lower levels of heavy metals than plant-based protein powders, but it’s still too early to know if there are substantial risks posed by these plant-based powders.
For his athletes to get the best results, Stevenson actually recommends getting a variety of different types of proteins. “For most fitness enthusiasts, I lean more toward a product with a mixture of proteins: whey, casein, soy, isolates, concentrates … you get the picture,” he says. “For my more elite clients, the timing of specific proteins may be more advantageous. Much of the time, though, it’s trial and error.”
Of course, another factor in choosing the right protein powder is a lot less scientific: “Ultimately, taste is the main factor in an athletes’ compliance to consume,” says Stevenson. “If it doesn’t taste good, you won’t drink it.”
Wyatt Myers is a contributing writer for the UMiami Health News blog.