Protein powders can provide quick and convenient nutrition before or after a workout, when you’re on the go, or between meals when hunger strikes. But not all protein powders are created equal. In fact, some may contain hidden health risks in the form of artificial flavors, thickeners, added sugars, and other dodgy ingredients. Worse still, a 2018 Clean Label Project survey found that some of the most well-known protein brands contained alarming levels of lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium and BPA.
Protein powder is considered a dietary supplement, which means manufacturers, rather than the FDA, oversee product labeling and safety.
“Because the supplement industry is largely unregulated, it’s important to choose well-known brands with third-party safety testing standards,” says Rachel Fine, Dt.P..
With that in mind, here are some of the protein powders you might want to avoid the next time you go to the grocery store or order online.
From a health point of view, Natreve’s “moo-less” protein powder is nothing to worry about: indeed, this well-balanced protein is non-GMO, gluten-free, without added sugar, and is made without flavorings, artificial colors, or sweeteners.
However, if, like most Natreve consumers, you are specifically purchasing this protein because it is vegan, it should be noted that there has been a product recall as it was found to contain milk not declared. Due to a manufacturing error, the two-lot containers contain milk-based ingredients that do not appear on the label.
For people who are allergic or very sensitive to milk, consuming this protein powder could cause a life-threatening allergic reaction. And for those who are lactose intolerant, it could still cause some pretty nasty digestive symptoms.
Collagen is a special type of protein that serves as the building block for all the connective tissues in your body. In recent years, collagen protein powders have been all the rage, promising a wide range of impressive potential benefits, from increasing muscle mass to supporting bone health. But Kristin Draayer, Dt.P.do not recommend it.
“Collagen protein has been touted as being good for healthy hair, skin, and joints, but there’s no good evidence to support these claims,” she explains. “Through the process of digestion and absorption, collagen is broken down into amino acids before being absorbed into the bloodstream. The body then uses these amino acids to build the proteins the body needs. There is no no guarantee that the amino acids will be restructured into collagen. In fact, it’s more likely that they won’t.”
Not only that, but Draayer says collagen is a bad muscle-building protein because it lacks all nine essential amino acids, especially leucine, which is essential to the muscle-building process.
But the concerns don’t end there. The Clean Label Project study of leading collagen supplements found that 64% were positive for measurable levels of arsenic, 37% were positive for measurable levels of lead, and 34% were positive for trace levels of mercury.
Specifically, Bulletproof’s Collagen Protein (chocolate flavor) topped the list of worst offenders, containing 2.1 mcg of arsenic, 9.17 mcg of cadmium, and 1.33 mcg of lead. A review of 2022 in The Journal of King Saud University found that ingesting excessive levels of these heavy metals can cause significant damage to all organs of the body, leading to an increased risk of cancer, neurological abnormalities, respiratory disorders, osteoporosis and other conditions.
Bill Bradley, Dt.P.CEO of Mediterranean Living recommends against using this protein powder because it contains a mixture of corn syrup and sucralose, an artificial sweetener.
“Sucralose and other artificial sweeteners are bad for your gut, and corn syrup can lead to diabetes and obesity,” says Bradley.
That’s not the only reason to avoid this product – the ingredients also include acesulfame-potassium, another artificial sweetener. Although the FDA has deemed this ingredient safe in limited amounts, studies have shown that consuming it in large amounts may lead to an increased risk of cancer and metabolic syndrome, and may lead to changes in brain function.
The first ingredient in this product is the Arbonne Protein Matrix Blend, which contains 56% pea protein. The Clean Label Project found that plant-based protein powders, including pea protein, tend to contain higher levels of heavy metals than their dairy-containing counterparts. Not only that, but almost all cocoa powders – another ingredient present in this powder – contain cadmium.
It should also be noted that peas contain phytic acid. This anti-nutrient binds to essential minerals like iron, calcium and zinc as it passes through the gut, preventing your body from absorbing them.
Arbonne protein powder also contains thickening agents known to cause gas, bloating, constipation and diarrhea.
There are plenty of reasons to steer clear of this protein powder, including pesky thickeners and artificial flavors.
For one, it contains partially hydrogenated coconut oil, which produces a high amount of trans fat during the hydrogenation process. Trans fats can raise “bad” LDL cholesterol while lowering “good” HDL cholesterol, increasing your risk of heart attack or stroke.
Adaptogen Science’s protein powder also includes sucralose, which has been shown to wreak major havoc on the bacteria in your gut.
Draayer advises forgoing protein powders with artificial sweeteners and sweetening your shakes slightly with fruit, or a dash of honey or maple syrup.