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What’s in Your Protein Powder?

What’s in Your Protein Powder?

When it comes to food and nutrition, we are living in a time where transparency is key. For many concerned with diet, checking out the ingredient list has become standard and the “cleaner” the list, the better. But there are some foods that prove more cryptic, namely dietary supplements.

Think about it...when you buy a dozen eggs, you know exactly what you are getting. However, when buying protein powder, you take a leap of faith that what you are buying is exactly what is on the label. This is for two reasons. First, you know what an egg looks, feels, and tastes like. But when you are buying a powder that is said to come from specific ingredients and contain a certain amount of calories, fat, and protein, how are you to verify that? Powder is powder.

Furthermore, the FDA does not regulate supplements like food. That is why there is always a disclaimer on supplement labels. Because of this lack of regulation, what is claimed on the label may not reflect what is actually in the package. Whether intentional or not, additional contaminants may end up in your supplements.

Enter the Clean Label Project, an organization focused on transparency in food labeling. Earlier this year, the Clean Label Project came out with a report that examined contamination and nutritional value of protein powders.  They based their ratings on 5 categories:

  • Arsenic/Mercury
  • Cadmium/Lead
  • Residual Solvents/Pesticides
  • Mycotoxins/Melamine/Antibiotics/BPA/BPS
  • Nutritional Superiority


After getting the lab results, they ranked the protein powders with 1-5 stars, 1 being the worst score, 5 being the best. If you scroll through the list, you may be disheartened to find a product you use on the list.  But it's important to understand several things about the results:

  • Consider the source of the protein. Fish based products will naturally have more mercury than products derived from other sources; similarly, plant-based protein powders may have more arsenic in them than animal-derived protein powders. This is because plants get the arsenic from the soil.
  • This data was not produced in the way other research is published in respected scientific journals.  It was not peer-reviewed and the organization did not provide transparency about how they conducted the study (ie. methods and materials), what kind of analysis they ran, and whether or not their findings were statistically significant. Ranking is only a relative value, which could be of minimal significance in terms of absolute value.
  • Finally, the fact that there are “Buy Now” buttons for the protein powders that ranked well raises skepticism that CLP is making money off of these brands and potentially could have had reason to favor certain brands over others.


As a culinary dietitian, I cannot speak to the validity of CLP or these results, but I can tell you that regardless of their exposé, you likely do not need to be buying protein powder to begin with. Americans are definitely lacking in some very important nutrients and food groups; however protein is not one of them. In fact, we are taking in more protein than we actually need. My advice? Skip the protein powder aisle and make a bee line to the produce section because that’s where the majority of our deficiencies lie.

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