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What’s Really In Your Protein Powder?

Your post-workout staple may be masking questionable ingredients.

It may seem like a decent proxy for eggs, but in truth, protein powder is a supplement. As such, it’s basically unregulated, meaning that the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t test and verify the contents and claims before it goes to market (unlike prescription drugs). It’s no surprise that a lack of oversight in a sports supplement industry valued at around $6.8 billion is going to lead to some nefarious practices. 

Several years ago, Consumer Reports analyzed 15 mass-market protein powder brands and found that all drinks had at least one sample containing one of these contaminants: arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury. Sometimes powders are tainted by banned substances, which is unsettling for lifestyle athletes, but for the 2006 Greek Olympic Weightlifting team, meant being banned from competition. Why would a company operate so dishonestly? One explanation is that such chemicals lead to faster results, which users will attribute to the powder. Discontinue using it and the gains will begin to disappear.

Sometimes it’s not what’s missing from the ingredients lists, rather what should be there but isn’t. A string of lawsuits claim that certain powders tout a certain protein content, while actually containing cheap fillers such as creatine monohydrate. High-quality proteins can be expensive and creative chemistry can help a company’s bottom line.

And no, going organic won’t ensure a product is in the clear, says Precision Nutrition co-founder John Berardi, Ph.D., who specializes in nutrient biochemistry. “For general consumers, you’re rolling the dice unless you by something from brands that have been tested,” he says. “For a host of ingredient sourcing, manufacturing, mixing and labeling reasons, there are no shortcuts here.”

Short of turning your garage into an at-home laboratory, how do you know what’s really going into your smoothie? Most of what we learn about the true contents in those tubs come from testing done in third-party labs, such as Labdoor, which analyzes different supplements and gives consumers the intel they need to make a purchasing decision. Consult their list of stellar performers, which include Aloha, MyProtein, and Bulletproof, to name a few. 

And when in doubt but can't source your powder, play it safe and go for the omelet.