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Supplement Industry Questions Protein Powder Study

Phase 2

Recently, the Clean Label Project, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, published a study showing that popular protein powder supplements could contain dangerous levels of heavy metals, such as arsenic, cadmium and others.

In its analysis, the Clean Label Project assigned each product a score for four individual elements: heavy metals, pesticides, contaminants like BPA, and nutrition. Then it calculated an overall score. The heavy metal levels accounted for 60 percent of the overall score because their effects have been shown in studies to pose greater harm to health, according to the organization.

The five products that received the poorest overall scores in this test were:

  • Garden of Life Organic Shake & Meal Replacement Chocolate Cacao Raw Organic Meal
  • Nature’s Best Isopure Creamy Vanilla Zero Carb
  • Quest Chocolate Milkshake Protein Powder
  • 360Cut Performance Supplements 360PRO Whey Chocolate Silk Premium Whey Protein
  • Vega Sport Plant-Based Vanilla Performance Protein

Natacha Gouveia, head of external communications with DanoneWave (Canada), who acquired WhiteWave Foods Company (Colorado) in April 2017, the manufacturer of Vega products, commented,  “We have been made aware of a recent report released by the Clean Label Project on protein powders. We were surprised by the presented conclusions. At Vega, the trust and safety of our consumers is our top priority. Plants absorb naturally occurring minerals from the soil which can be reflected in the final product. Our robust Quality Assurance programs ensure our products are compliant with our own rigorous internal standards, as well as all government regulations. We are proud that Vega products are made with only real, whole food plant-based ingredients condensed into one nutrient-dense scoop. No artificial or synthetic ingredients are used in our products. We have not seen the raw data on which Clean Label Project based their report, or the full methodology they used, so we can’t comment on this particular report at this point in time. We however want to reassure our consumers that we test every single lot of Vega protein to ensure our products are safe, compliant and nutrient-dense, and meet our high quality standards.”

Andrea Wong, PhD., vice president, scientific & regulatory affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), also responded to the published report: “Dietary supplement and functional food marketers are always looking for ways to improve their products and exceed consumer expectations for quality and transparency, so this study by the Clean Label Project deserves careful scrutiny as an opportunity to improve. The fact that this study allegedly detected contaminants in higher-than-acceptable levels is concerning to CRN, but, with the limited information that was disclosed, we are unable to decipher the facts. CRN has some reservations about the conclusions and data analysis that should also be considered:

  • A detectable level of a contaminant is not necessarily an unsafe level—it merely means that the instrumentation is sophisticated enough to detect it.
  • In the interest of its mission of increased transparency, the Clean Label Project should provide insight into how its product rating system is quantified. Its star rating system appears to be subjective and fails to give consumers the information to make informed purchasing decisions.
  • It is not surprising that plant-based protein sources may have detectable levels of certain naturally occurring compounds as plants naturally absorb minerals from the soil in which they grow.
  • All dietary supplements are required to meet quality standards, and those that do not meet requirements established by good manufacturing practices are subject to enforcement action by FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration].”

Dan Fabricant, PhD, president and CEO of the Natural Products Association (NPA), stated,  “This so-called ‘study’ doesn’t even rise to the level of junk science because there’s no science in it at all. This fake news poisons the well with misinformation and innuendo and could actually threaten the ability to protect consumers from harmful products. NPA believes this shadow group should disclose its funders and the methodology it used to produce this study so the public can make an educated decision about what products to use.”

The NPA also noted that:

  • The non-peer reviewed study regarding protein powder claims to have found “detectable” levels of arsenic in protein powder products. As the FDA has made clear, these types of products are “present in the environment as a naturally occurring substance or as a result of contamination from human activity. It is found in water, air, soil and foods. In foods, arsenic may be present as inorganic arsenic (the most toxic form of arsenic) or organic arsenic (non-toxic). Suggesting any sort of threat to human health, (i.e. rat poison) as these people have done here without determining the type of arsenic is irresponsible and misleading.” 
  • The study also claims levels of contamination in products that are in fact much lower than what is considered to be safe by the FDA, and by what is found in regular every day foods like boiled shrimp, salad dressing, mixed nuts, and Brussels sprouts.  FDA has established limits on things like lead but this study fails to mention them, yet suggests a public health problem.
  • Clean Label Project profits from referring products to online retailers that it lists on its website.
  • The Clean Label Project says its director serves on the board of a “global food brand” but refuses to name which one.



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