Are there heavy metals in your protein powder?

Supplements are all healthy, right? Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case as supplements aren’t as heavily regulated as other food products, with a lot of the responsibility for quality control falling with the manufacturer and brand themselves.

This can often mean that your protein powders aren’t as good for you as you might think. Aside from the bulking agents, artificial ingredients, sweeteners and other junk, your protein powders might well contain heavy metals - and whilst you might not open your new bag of protein to discover Iron Maiden, there may be a more dangerous variety of heavy metal lurking unseen. 

We’ve written before about what ingredients are in your protein powder, so here we’re going to look at what heavy metals are, which ones are dangerous and how you can choose a metal free protein powder. 

What are heavy metals? 

Heavy metals are defined as metals that have a relatively high density when compared to water, and are toxic or poisonous at low concentrations. What does this mean? I hear you ask. Well, I didn’t know either so I did some research. It turns out that our bodies contain a certain amount of specific heavy metals such as iron and copper, which are necessary for keeping our bodies functioning - so that’s the first thing to know. Basically, they’re not all bad, but there are some that we definitely need to watch out for. 

They are found in contaminated soil, particularly from areas of high pollution and, if consumed, can build up in our cells causing problems to our nervous system, brain and hearts, amongst other things. This is called bioaccumulation and it’s not great, as it can cause heavy metal poisoning. Whilst heavy metal poisoning is still considered to be a rare condition, human consumption of heavy metals has dramatically increased in the past decades. This is as a result of their use in various agricultural and biological processes, as well as other activities, such as mining and smelting. This means that they are becoming more and more present in our foods and supplements, with heavy metals found in unacceptable quantities in a lot of different protein powders. 

What are the risks associated with heavy metals? 

Let’s take a look at the risks associated with the four most common heavy metals found in food and supplements. The most common are Mercury, Cadmium, Arsenic and Lead, although there are other heavy metals that can be found in protein powders due to contamination from pesticides and contaminated ingredient sources. 

Mercury

You are most likely to consume higher levels of mercury if you eat fish, but contaminated water sources can often find their way into our supplements and can lead to muscle weakness, difficulties with hearing, speech and vision and trouble with coordination. Other symptoms include lethargy, irritability and headaches. 

Cadmium

Cadmium poisoning presents itself as fever and difficulty breathing. With 74% of protein powders having detectable levels of cadmium, this is certainly one to watch out for. However, it’s not only our supplements that can add to the cadmium in our bodies; inhaling cigarette smoke can also contribute to our cadmium levels.   

Arsenic

Now, most people are aware of arsenic as a poison, but it is also a naturally occurring heavy metal. In high quantities, arsenic poisoning can cause nausea and vomiting and arrhythmia. You might be asking yourself how arsenic can get into your supplements - and it’s all determined by the supply chain of ingredients, as arsenic is prevalent in insecticides, herbicides and pesticides. It can also be found in contaminated water, seafood and algae.

Lead

Lead is the most common heavy metal found in protein powders, and it can cause sleep problems, constipation and developmental issues in children. Not only that, but lead poisoning can change your behaviour, making you more aggressive and irritable. Further, lead can cause anaemia and high blood pressure over time. 

What should I look out for in my protein powder? 

A report by The Clean Label Project suggests that plant-based protein powders are the worst for containing heavy metals - with 75% of plant-based protein powders testing positive for lead. This is problematic for people on a plant-based diet, or for people who have allergies or intolerances to non plant-based ingredients. This is why Vivo Life’s products, including our protein powders such as Vegan Protein and PERFORM (protein with BCAAs) are rigorously tested for heavy metals and other contaminants, with full reports available. 

  1. Look for brands which test their products at the source
  2. Look for brands which work with trusted suppliers and hold themselves to high standards
  3. Look for brands which batch test their products regularly and via an independent third party
  4. Look for brands who use the highest quality ingredients - look no further than our VGanic brand promise.  

If you are concerned about heavy metals and their impact, there are sources of further reading below, or you can seek the advice of a healthcare professional. 

Sources and Further Reading