There’s so much hype around protein to help lose weight and build muscle, it’s easy to see why people turn to powders to bulk up their morning smoothies and shakes. I’ve tried a few protein powders over the years myself. While they can be a convenient way to boost nutrition, it’s important to consider the potential drawbacks before using them.
Industry experts and nutritionists have debated the overall safety of protein powders for years (F-Factor 20/20 Fiber/Protein Powder being the most recent product to come under scrutiny). A 2018 report from a nonprofit called Clean Label Project found heavy metals like arsenic and lead in many leading protein powders. Plant-based powders had more contamination than those with whey and egg protein, and organic powders actually had higher levels of contamination than conventional. (It’s important to note that the Clean Label Project sells “approved” products from their site.) Tests done in 2010 by Consumer Reports showed similar results.
It’s impossible to avoid heavy metals entirely since they’re present in our air, soil, and water. But there are other reasons to be cautious about protein powders. Here’s my advice:
Know the facts about supplements. Many protein powders are considered supplements, which aren’t regulated in the same way that foods and drugs are. According to the FDA, they don’t have to be proven safe before they’re marketed. Supplements also don’t have to prove they contain what they claim, and it’s up to consumers to raise red flags about adverse effects. It’s also up to companies to handle and address those complaints when they get them. (Consumers can also report complaints about any supplement directly to the FDA.)
Read the ingredients. Be sure you note not only the protein source (such as whey, egg, or pea protein), but also the other ingredients to make sure you aren't sensitive to any of them. Some have a lengthy list including non-nutritive sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit or added fiber like inulin that can cause gas and bloating in some people.
Watch your portion. The adage “the dose makes the poison” applies to anything you ingest. Protein powder in an occasional on-the-go shake might be fine, but using it multiple times a day might not. In the case of the F-Factor powder, some users supposedly were consuming it throughout the day in coffee, smoothies, muffins, waffles, and even salad dressing. It’s possible that for some people, smaller amounts would be tolerated but multiple servings would not.
Keep an eye on reactions. Protein powders (like anything else you take in) can lead to reactions in some people, even if a product is labeled “all natural” or “organic” and sold over the counter.
Get your protein from food. Most people get plenty of protein. It’s true that protein is key as you get older to prevent loss of muscle mass. But powder shouldn’t be your main source. Aim to get the bulk of your protein through foods such as lean meats, dairy, nuts and seeds, soy, eggs, whole grains, and vegetables, and you’ll also get all the other important nutrients (and health benefits) those foods offer.