Americans love convenience. From consuming fast food at the drive-through to substituting convenience foods for the family meal, the amount of time people put into food preparation continues to decrease.
Over the past five or so years, this love of fast-and-easy has exploded into the area of protein supplements, especially drinks and powders. Once a fringe food consumed mainly by athletes, protein supplements have gone mainstream, both as meal replacement (or complement) and as a food additive. Instead of the massive tubs of product that sat on the counters and fridge tops of bodybuilders and high school and college boys, we now have designer drinks and slickly packaged canisters marketed to males and females of every age.
The sports nutrition category in the U.S. is worth almost seven billion dollars, with sports protein powders accounting for 70 percent of that market.1 Sports drinks and energy bars, many of which contain protein fortification or supplementation, total almost another ten billion, creating a combined market worth over sixteen billion dollars.1 About two-fifths of Americans say they regularly consume protein supplements. These products also are popular outside the U.S. The worldwide market for protein supplements is anticipated to balloon past twenty-one billion dollars by 2025.2
Extracting protein from grains, seeds, vegetables and other plant matter was once unthinkable and impossible but is now an unsurprising industrial process. (This is similar to what happened with the edible oil industry.) While not all protein supplements are plant-based, many are, including many of the most problematic. Let’s look at these supplements and explore three reasons that we should be concerned about adding them to our diets—especially as replacements for real food.
AMINO ACID IMBALANCE
The modern American generally suffers from a skewed protein intake and a related amino acid imbalance. Whereas our ancestors consumed not just the muscle meat but the skin, bones and organs of animals, the average American does not. Instead, we consume large amounts of muscle meats—an average of over two hundred and fifty pounds per person per year.
This modern, muscle meat-heavy diet—and especially a diet marked by lots of skinless chicken breast, lean ground beef and other such cuts—will commonly result in excess methionine. This causes glycine depletion and contributes to numerous health issues. On the other hand, bones, skin, organs and certain cuts rich in connective and other tissues that generally require long, slow cooking (such as the shanks) contain lots of glycine and far less methionine. Generally, if you are eating “nose to tail” and consuming all the animal, including stocks and broths, you will achieve an adequate balance between methionine and glycine.
Chris Masterjohn, PhD, explains why most modern diets fail to achieve the proper balance:
Successful traditional diets provided muscle meats together with organ meats and gelatinous materials such as bones, gristle and other connective tissue. These combinations provided a healthy balance between the methionine found in muscle meats, the B vitamins found in organ meats and the glycine found in connective tissue. Modern diets, by contrast, provide abundant quantities of methionine-rich muscle meats while organs and connective tissue have fallen by the wayside. The result of this imbalance is that methionine is unable to fulfill its proper cellular functions and generates toxic byproducts instead, while the supply of glycine is depleted. Together, these changes are likely to contribute to reduced longevity and chronic disease.3
In her book, Death by Food Pyramid,4 Denise Minger notes, “High methionine intake increases your need for vitamin B12, vitamin B6, folate, choline and betaine, which help neutralize homocysteine, one of methionine’s most noxious byproducts…. What’s more, methionine can drain your body’s glycine stores.”
One of the first considerations with protein supplementation is to ask whether such supplements worsen or improve the amino acid imbalances characteristic of the American diet, and specifically the methionine-to-glycine ratio. Most do nothing to address this particular imbalance, and some may make it worse, especially whey- and egg white-based food substitutes and supplements.5 Protein supplements typically use pea and/or rice protein as their main ingredient because they are low-cost and relatively easy to extract. Paired, pea and rice protein create a more balanced and complete protein profile.
Although few of these supplements, if any, provide a breakdown of their amino acid composition on the product label, we can use information about pea and rice proteins to estimate the general amino acid composition of protein supplement products. Unfortunately, the more balanced combination of pea and rice does not appear to improve the low glycine levels that typify modern, muscle meat-heavy diets (Table 1). Soy proteins further exacerbate the imbalance.
Is there a protein supplement that does help balance our amino acid intake? Yes. Collagen or gelatin can serve this purpose—but few to no protein supplements on the market use them as ingredients. On a positive note, it is worth pointing out that soy no longer appears to be the processed protein supplement of choice. Although there are still many products that contain or use soy, the majority of the most popular products do not list soy on the label in almost any form, save the occasional inclusion of soy lecithin.
Another concern regarding protein supplements involves their contamination with heavy metals and other toxins and chemicals.6 A recent study found that vegetable-based protein supplements were contaminated with numerous heavy metals—arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury—and also other modern chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA).7 On the other hand, the animal-based protein supplements—those made from bone, cartilage, egg and dairy—came back as the cleanest in testing.
A troubling but not entirely unsurprising finding of the study was the fact that organic certification was no guarantee of product purity for the plant-based options. As discussed by Consumer Reports, “Buying a product with an ‘organic’ label did not reduce the chances of getting a contaminated product. In fact, organic protein supplements had higher levels of heavy metals, on average, than nonorganic.”8 For some of the organic products, this wasn’t a first-time issue either. In previous tests, other independent labs found elevated levels of heavy metals in many organic products. In response, the companies promised change,9 but it is unclear whether their newer results show any progress.
Where does the contamination come from? First, protein supplements—especially the vegan varieties—are generally highly processed. Protein isolates are not natural, and many plant-based sources are not overly willing to give up their protein fraction without a fight. Some require the use of heat, pressure, hexane and other chemical and industrial processes to separate out the protein.10 Manufacturers even admit that high heat is a part of processing for most isolates and that it has a negative impact on the products.11 Sometimes, the process involves multiple rounds of exposure to temperatures over one hundred sixty degrees.12 All this heat and processing increases the likelihood that contaminants will make it into the product.
Second, packaging may play a role that many consumers don’t expect. The risk of BPA, BPA alternatives and other chemicals leaching into liquid, semi-liquid and other foods is well known. Although many consumers associate these risks primarily with plastic packaging, studies show that BPA and other chemicals are present in foods packaged in glass, metal and even paper!13 In addition, it now appears that even dry goods have risks—some that are so significant that they have forced recalls.14 Moreover, foods are not just exposed to these chemicals in the packaging. Many parts and pieces of processing equipment, along with the residual chemicals that were used to make those parts and pieces, come into contact with food. Thus, the more processed a food is, the more exposure it has to possible contaminants and the higher the final levels of accumulated contamination. Given that vegetable-based proteins tend to require far more processing than animal-based proteins, it is no surprise that the plant-based protein products test higher in contaminants than the animal-based alternatives.
Third, many protein supplements contain a wide array of other ingredients, including artificial colors, preservatives, fillers and sweeteners. In general, the lower the price, the more additional ingredients of dubious quality and value you will find in the final product. Supplemental ingredients also appear to play a key role in determining which types of products test higher for heavy metals. Products that use particular plant-based ingredients (such as rice or soy) or chocolate (instead of vanilla or other flavoring options) tend to have higher levels of heavy metals. All of this points to a simple fact: companies need to implement routine testing and publicize their results so that consumers can make informed decisions and the companies producing cleaner products can capture a greater market share for their efforts. My recommendation is not to purchase a product unless the company in question provides independent, third-party test results that show low-to-no levels of heavy metals and other contaminants.
RICE: A FAVORITE HOME FOR HEAVY METALS
One reason plant-based protein supplements are showing up with higher levels of heavy metals is their growing reliance on rice. Over the past few years, I have written extensively about rice’s propensity to accumulate heavy metals. This traditional food brings with it immense arsenic and lead risks, especially for children. More and more foods, including organic ones, use rice as a primary ingredient—especially rice syrup, rice flour and rice protein. Organic rice has no advantage over non-organic when it comes to heavy metal contamination.
As I have cautioned elsewhere, it is very easy to consume too much rice, given the various forms in which it is present in the food chain.15 If you eat a few organic energy bars (rice protein and rice syrup), have a few gluten-free muffins at a local cafe (rice flour), consume a protein drink one or two days of the week to supplement or replace a meal (rice protein), pop a couple of organic breath mints (rice syrup) and eat actual rice as a side once or twice a week, your exposure to rice (and the heavy metals it contains) may be far higher than you realize. In addition, many protein supplements that contain rice protein also contain brown rice syrup—a double dose for heavy metal exposure. Caution with these pseudo-foods is even more important when children are involved.
ADDED AND UNNECESSARY EXPENSE
The above two issues—amino acid imbalances and contamination with heavy metals and other chemicals—are troubling enough on their own. However, when one also factors in the cost of protein powders, it becomes clear that in general protein powders (especially the vegetable-based ones) are not just a risk to our health but also are an unnecessary expense. On average, organic protein supplements, whether animal- or plant-based, run over a dollar per serving. If consumed just a few times per week, this can quickly add up to five hundred or more dollars per year for even a small family, when this money could instead be going toward real food and real farmers.
Even if the processed protein itself ends up slightly cheaper than other options, the absence of other complementary nutrients (such as those found in whole-food protein sources like eggs) more than offsets any cost savings that the highly processed proteins may seem to afford. Although there are some people who may benefit from or actually need protein supplements, overall they are a poor substitute—nutritionally and economically—for whole foods and the protein and vital nutrients that whole foods offer (Table 2). Real foods provide ample protein along with important nutrients, while many supplements create large expenses with low nutritional value and lots of additives.
DON’T FORGET THE BUGS!
While not yet very common, bug-based protein powders are a more traditional—and promising—way to provide a minimally processed, whole-foods-based protein boost when needed. For generations, Native American tribes and many other groups and cultures around the world have turned insects into flours and other nutritious (and tasty!) foods. Cricket flour, for example, is made by lightly roasting and then grinding up whole crickets. It tests high in numerous vitamins and minerals—especially vitamins B12, riboflavin and phosphorus. Independent testing also shows that cricket flour would rank as one of the cleanest protein supplements in terms of heavy metal contamination. Although more research is needed, it appears that cricket flour has the additional bonus of being very low in methionine.16
The biggest drawback of bug-based products, currently, is the high price: bug-based flours and protein powders run at about the same cost per serving as the best organic supplements on the market. Over the next three to five years, however, the price is expected to come down as greater demand creates more efficiencies and opportunities for such operations.
As I shown, there is more to consider regarding protein supplements than meets the eye.17 In general, the best option is to get one’s protein from whole foods, especially those that are properly prepared and traditionally raised: pastured eggs, sausages that include organ meats, cultured dairy products, soups, stocks and stews. It is also important to try to break the American reliance on low-nutrition but high-convenience muscle meats. Learn to prepare and enjoy the entire animal, including the skin and bones. Many of the most nutritious cuts—like shanks, legs, soup and neck bones—are also some of the cheapest.
Second, for those who need to supplement protein or make a meal replacement, try yogurt or coconut milk smoothies with added raw egg yolks (especially valuable for their vitamin and nutrient content!) along with added gelatin or collagen to help balance amino acid intake. Note, however, that while gelatin and collagen have many benefits, they are not complete proteins, so I do not recommend using them alone.
Given the low cost of high quality protein in America, it isn’t difficult to cover protein needs through real foods. As an added bonus, you will help good farmers at the same time!
HEAVY METALS EVERYWHERE, HEAVY METALS IN MY HAIR
Almost all modern foods will test positive for heavy metals. The metals’ natural occurrence, coupled with the release of large amounts into the environment since the onset of the industrial age, means that even organically-raised foods will contain small but measurable quantities. However, the fact that almost everything tests positive for heavy metals does not mean that we shouldn’t care about lessening our exposure to them or that all products are equal. Some foods and supplements consistently test higher—and sometimes much higher—than others. Over time, the total accumulation caused by these small differences can be quite substantial. Our priority should be to minimize our total exposure, especially for our children or for people who, for whatever reason, already show elevated levels.
1. Daniells S. Protein powders: the heavyweight in the $16bn sports nutrition market. Food Navigator-USA, Sept. 16, 2015.
2. Grand View Research, Inc. Protein supplements market worth $21.5 billion by 2025. October 2017. https://www.grandviewresearch.com/press-release/global-protein-supplements-market.
3. Masterjohn C. Synergies. Wise Traditions, Fall 2012;13(3):15-29.
4. Minger D. Death by Food Pyramid: How Shoddy Science, Sketchy Politics and Shady Special Interests Have Ruined Our Health. New York, NY: Primal Nutrition, Inc., 2014, p. 183.
5. Kalman DS. Amino acid composition of an organic brown rice protein concentrate and isolate compared to soy and whey concentrates and isolates. Foods 2014;3(3):394-402.
6. Health risks of protein drinks: you don’t need the extra protein or the heavy metals our tests found. Consumer Reports, July 2010.
7. Clean Label Project. 2018 Protein Powder Study. http://www.cleanlabelproject.kinsta.com/protein-powder/.
8. Hirsch J. Arsenic, lead found in popular protein supplements. Consumer Reports, March 12, 2018.
9. Adams M. Update: Garden of Life, SunWarrior, Natural News reach industry-leading agreement for the future of brown rice protein. Natural News, Feb. 4, 2014.
10. Preece KE, Hooshyar N, Zuidam NJ. Whole soybean protein extraction processes: a review. Innov Food Sci Emerg Technol 2017;43:163-172.
11. Functional hemp protein extraction. https://patents.google.com/patent/US20130202777.
12. Fredrikson M, Biot P, Alminger ML, Carlsson NG, Sandberg AS. Production process for high quality pea-protein isolate with low content of oligosaccharides and phytate. J Agric Food Chem 2001;49:1208-1212.
13. Liao C, Kannan K. Concentrations and profiles of bisphenol A and other bisphenol analogues in foodstuffs from the United States and their implications for human exposure. J Agric Food Chem 2013;61(19):4655-4662.
14. Lunder S, Andrews D, Houlihan J. Kellogg’s cereal recall: health risks from packaging? Environmental Working Group, July 12, 2010. https://www.ewg.org/research/kelloggs-cereal-recall-health-risks-packaging#.Wt-jEJch0XN.
15. Moody J. 4 ways to avoid the huge problem of arsenic in rice. The Healthy Home Economist. https://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/arsenic-in-rice/.
16. Nakagaki BJ, Sunde ML, Defoliart GR. Protein quality of the house cricket, Acheta domesticus, when fed to broiler chicks. Poult Sci 1987;66(8):1367-1371.
17. Fallon Morell S. The problem with protein powders. Wise Traditions 2016;17(4):29-33.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2018.