The Dangers of Protein Powder
and why you should think before you purchase
Many people use protein powder to supplement their diet and achieve their desired weight or a balanced diet. Bodybuilders, vegetarians, vegans, and anyone else who purchases protein powder might wonder what ingredients — what unsaid ingredients — are in their powders. After all, a white powder with the consistency of flour might not give clues as to what exactly is in it, just like an over-processed chicken nugget that won’t rot for 5 years. The prominent nutritional consultant, Dr. Mike Roussell states in an interview that:
“Protein shakes are an easy way to boost your daily protein intake and to incorporate protein into each of your meals and snacks. But not all brands are created equal” (Roussell, 2018).
By taking a closer look at the ingredients in different brands of protein powder, you’ll see that there’s a broad range of processing. It turns out that nanotechnology and trace amounts of pesticides and heavy metals are key players in contamination, and might make you think twice about the brands you purchase.
Every morning, I dump about two spoonful’s worth of powder into my fruit smoothie so I don’t suffer from a protein deficiency while temporarily attempting to go vegan. In the weeks where I somehow successfully scratch the daily eggs and bacon in order to satisfy my conscious, I wonder what kind of small particles make their way into my powder and what effects they could have. Or maybe I’m just trying to find ways to justify going back to over-processed greasy bacon and eggs topped with melted cheddar cheese… either way we owe it to ourselves to find out exactly what we’re putting in our stomachs. The first concern over protein powders is how they’re manufactured. Because it’s a powder, we’re dealing with microscopic food particles or nanoparticles, which is made possible by nanotechnology. Now I know what you might be thinking — “isn’t nanotechnology just fancy micro-robots of the future?”. Well, not exactly. Nanotech or nanoparticles in food really just indicates the microscopic size of the food particles (in this case, protein powder particles) and their ability to aid in food delivery, flavor, and prolonged shelf life (Cuffari, 2015). Because the particles range from 1 to 100 nanometers in size, they are able to easily move through the gastrointestinal tract and deliver nutrients to the body, which stay there far longer than typical bulk materials that are used in food ingredients (Cuffari, 2015). However, with these nanoparticles comes nanotoxicity in the form of pollution and pesticides, all on a microscopic level. Silicon dioxide and titanium dioxide nanoparticles are commonly added to protein powders for flow properties and increased lightness in the coloring (as if pesticides didn’t already add the delicious flavor of chemical toxins) (Lim et al., 2015). High levels of SiO2 or TiO2 particles may create health risks associated with cellular damage, liver disfunction, and a lowered immune response (McClements & Xiao, 2017). CBS news also voices concern over trace amounts of toxic particles, reporting that there is a risk to supplementing your diet with powders. At this point, bacon grease and cheese-topped eggs doesn’t sound so bad in comparison! In all seriousness though, because there is no effective regulation over contamination I would recommend a personal investigation of your current brand of protein powder to see if clean ingredients are a main priority — your liver will thank you for it.
Even if you decide to play the role of detective in order to ensure that your powder is innocent of pollutants, the small particle size of any protein powder may negatively interact with your gut microbiota. This certainly comes as a punch to the gut, as it may not even matter if you buy organic powders due to the way your gut bacteria alters the properties of ingested nanoparticles in the powder. Your gut microbiota plays an important role in many metabolic processes and diseases, such as cardiovascular health, diabetes, fatty liver disease, obesity, and accompanying co-morbidities (Cepeda et al., 2018). Inorganic nanoparticles have been known to alter bacterial viability in the colon and damage cell walls, along with creating an imbalance of bacterial species (McClements & Xiao, 2017). Organic (not the kind that you buy at the grocery store) nanoparticles also have the ability to enhance the bioavailability of pesticides or hormones after ingested (McClements & Xiao, 2017). A former professor at Harvard, Dr, Art Ayers warns that:
“Protein shakes and whey shakes both lack prebiotic fiber to feed gut microbiota, but whey shakes also have proteins that are partially digested to produce antimicrobial peptides and other factors that disrupt adult gut flora” (Ayers, 2014).
All of these side effect warnings are starting to sound like a pharmaceutical ad, but until there is more regulation in the United States on nanoparticles in food it is important be made aware of adverse health effects. Now if you’re anything like me, you might just give up and say “oh screw it, we’re all gonna die anyways” in order to rid your conscious of all of these possible side effects and be able to eat whatever you want in peace. After all, sometimes it’s just about doing the best you can under the circumstances. The good news is that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and there are healthy alternatives that most likely avoid all of these health problems. BUT first, let’s go over some remaining effects of non-safe protein powder in order to scare you into becoming a full-blown health nut.
Although the first physical barrier against toxic materials in the human body is the gastrointestinal tract with gut microbiota, mucus is usually not recognized as an important factor in its interaction with pollutants and food contamination (Gillois et al., 2018). It is crucial to gut homeostasis as it interplays with nanoparticles, heavy metals, and pesticides (Gillois et al., 2018). This means that although we typically look at gut microbiota to determine levels of environmental pollution and risk factors, intestinal mucus must be researched as well in order to get the whole picture. Together, examinations of gut microbiota and mucus will help give researchers a toxicity evaluation of environmental pollution (Jin et al., 2017). We can then use these evaluations to set safe food standards in the U.S. (after Trump leaves the presidency in 2020 of course).
Whey is the most common type of protein powder supplement, which is made from cow’s milk. Some hard-core vegans will be happy to know that toxicity in the body may result as a consequence of ingesting this type of animal protein. Researches conducted tests on rats to show that there is an increased risk for cardiac injury, oxidative stress, and damage to red blood cells (just to name a few) when taking whey supplements (Sekeroglu, 2018). Eirik Garnas, a strength trainer and nutritionist, swears off of whey protein, claiming that “…protein supplementation helped enhance my muscle-building efforts… and also experienced some health issues during this time, some of which I now know were partly caused by whey protein consumption” (Garnas, 2015). He later learned that he wasn’t alone, as fellow athletes began to complain as well.
“One of the things I’ve noticed from talking to clients and people in general about whey protein supplementation is that a lot of people say they experience digestive issues such as bloating, gas, and/or loose stools from consuming whey protein shakes. This makes complete sense to me, as whey protein powder is a processed food item with a nutrient composition that is very different from that of natural, whole foods” (Garnas, 2015).
According to Garnas and rat research studies, you might want to think about purchasing a vegan or plant-based powder like soy or pea protein, as it should not create the aforementioned symptoms (vegans: 1, omnivores: 0). However, additional research is necessary before concluding that whey protein powders will give you a heart attack — so don’t fear non-vegan options just yet. There is not enough studies over whey protein powder to conclude that it is in fact worse than plant-based powders, so omnivores rejoice! That is, if you’re brave enough to risk the “loose stools” Garnas warns about.
Chromium and cadmium are used as industrial chemicals that are found in many household products and some foods at certain allowed levels. Personally, I’m not sure if any amount of heavy metals should be allowed — but you can thank under-regulated businesses and politicians for that. Unfortunately Big Brother has decided it would be wise not to enforce the limits to toxicity either, as many tested food samples have exceeded the legal limits of chromium, cadmium, and other trace amounts of heavy metals (Korfali et al., 2013). Too much of these dangerous elements can lead to altered gene expression, DNA damage, membrane damage, tissue damage, and more (Stohs et al, 2000). Altered gene expression does make it sound like you might sprout a third ear, but I assure you the effects are less detectable and therefore much more dangerous over time.
It is important to remember that one spoonful of your protein powder isn’t going to make you double over from cardiac arrest or permanently altered gut microbiota. However, small chronic doses of toxic pollutants can create health problems over time — especially if you choose to ignore the ingredient list and company’s mission statement. For example, some companies swear off of antibiotics, chemicals, and contaminants while others list ingredients you can’t even pronounce. Furthermore, although health-oriented stores market safe and “all-natural” protein powders, the prevalence of nanoparticles in supplements in recent years may result in unsafe levels of toxicity in many products, organic or not. That’s not to say that all brands are dangerous either, but it is important to be aware of all possible adverse health effects in order to make informed decisions on what you decide to put in your stomach. For example, Amazon’s best-selling protein, OPTIMUM NUTRITION GOLD STANDARD 100% Whey Protein Powder contains: protein blend (whey protein isolates, whey protein concentrate, whey peptides), cocoa, lecithin, natural and artificial flavour, acesulfame potassium in its ingredient list. First of all, the word “artificial” should be enough to raise a red flag, but I also couldn’t tell you what the majority of these ingredients actually are. It’s important to note that “flavor” could mean a variety of possible toxic chemicals as well. It’s better to be safe than sorry, so I’d opt for a USDA organic powder like Garden of Life Organic Plant Protein Smooth Unflavored instead. It includes readable ingredients such as organic pea seed, organic flax seed, organic cranberry seed… you get the point, basically all organic seeds. My personal favorite that I use on a daily basis is Source Organic Whey Protein, the first organic whey protein to be certified by the American Humane Association and the Non-GMO Project. It’s ingredients are organic whey protein concentrate and less than 1% organic sunflower lecithin (only 2 Ingredients, yay!). Furthermore, the grass-fed cows graze year-round and are not locked up in crowded barns while being fed grains. Source Organic Whey states:
“ Using low-temperature microfiltration and acid-free processing, we produce a non-denatured whey protein with naturally occurring immunoglobins, lactoferrin, and native growth factors, components that are lost when producing protein isolates and many other whey protein products”
This means that their processing techniques are free of harmful chemicals, have no added sugars or sweeteners, and is fully organic. Although whey protein catches a bad reputation from some nutritionists and small-scale rat studies, by researching the company’s ingredients, processing techniques, and cow’s diet/lifestyle, I feel confident enough to recommend the product. Remember, not all protein powder brands are created equal and it is always best to use your own judgement when it comes to anything and everything you decide to ingest.
Cuffari, J. L. F. (2015, June 29). Nanotechnology in Food. Retrieved November 4, 2018, from https://www.azonano.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=4069
Gillois, K., Lévêque, M., Théodorou, V., Robert, H., & Mercier-Bonin, M. (2018). Mucus: An Underestimated Gut Target for Environmental Pollutants and Food Additives. Microorganisms, 6(2). https://doi.org/10.3390/microorganisms6020053
Lim, J.-H., Sisco, P., Mudalige, T. K., Sánchez-Pomales, G., Howard, P. C., & Linder, S. W. (2015). Detection and Characterization of SiO2 and TiO2 Nanostructures in Dietary Supplements. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 63(12), 3144–3152. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jafc.5b00392
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