Consumer Reports magazine has a long established and well-earned reputation for independently testing various products for quality and efficacy. It was with some concern, then, when I learned about an article in the July,2010 issue of CR that seemed to lambaste various protein supplements. I managed to obtain a copy of the article. CR commissioned an independent laboratory to analyze 15 protein drinks. The analysis wasn't concerned with the amount of protein in the product versus the actual protein content of the products. Instead, the focus was on the heavy metal content found in the products. In this case, "heavy metal" doesn't refer to a type of rock music, but rather relates to the presence of trace minerals, such as cadmium, lead, mercury, and arsenic that are known to cause potentially serious health problems. Most of the products tested showed low to moderate levels of these toxic minerals. But EAS Myoplex chocolate shake showed a level of 16 micrograms of arsenic in a three serving portion of the product. The upper safe limit for arsenic is 15 micrograms per day. The EAS product also showed a level of 5.1 micrograms of cadmium, which is above the daily safe limit of 5 micrograms. One immediate problem with this, which wasn't stated in the CR article, was that the recommended daily servings of the EAS product is two servings a day, yet the analysis was for three servings a day of the product. But EAS wasn't the only product showing above the limit levels of toxic metals. Muscle Milk chocolate showed a level of 5.6 micrograms of cadmium in three servings, and also contained 13.5 micrograms of lead. The daily safe intake of lead is 10 micrograms. The vanilla flavor of Muscle Milk contained 12.2 micrograms of lead. The other products tested, which included protein products from BSN, Designer whey, GNC, Muscle Tech, Solgar, Six star, and Optimum nutrition, all contained trace amounts of one or more of the heavy metals, but were well within the range deemed safe.
While levels of these toxic heavy metals above the daily limit is troubling, it's also true that they exist naturally in several foods, including shellfish, liver, potatoes, rice, spinach, and leafy greens. As I pointed out in a past article in Ironman, commercial chicken is loaded with arsenic, because it's used in the feed provided to chickens. In addition, cadmium is difficult to absorb from food, although you can get significant levels if you smoke cigarettes. The average intake of cadmium from food sources is 13-24 micrograms daily, which exceeds the safe upper limit, and is more than is contained in any protein supplements. In addition, several natural nutrients are known to either block cadmium uptake, or detoxify it before it can cause problems in the body. These nutrients include: glutathione, curcumin, NAC, and zinc. Arsenic is detoxified by methyl donors, including choline, methionine, SAMi. Also by zinc, selenium, vitamins E and A. Glutathione precursors, such as lipoic acid, NAC, and whey protein itself (because of its rich cysteine content) also short-circuit any detrimental health effects from arsenic. Lead is neutralized by calcium, antioxidants, copper, methionine, taurine, glycine, quercetin, and thiamine (vitamin B1). Mercury, another heavy metal existing in trace amounts in protein supplements, is blocked by selenium, garlic, zinc, NAC, lipoic acid, modified pectin, green tea, black tea, soy protein. Wheat bran blocks 84% of mercury absorption into the body.
The article also discussed the needs of protein for athletes, and concludes that you can easily get enough protein, and far cheaper, from simply eating high protein foods, such as chicken, eggs, milk, and so on. One "expert" is quoted as saying that"you can only absorb 9 grams of protein per meal," which is nonsense. As I wrote in Ironman, a concise study of the fate of ingested protein in young men involved in a weight-training program showed that the actual protein limit per meal is 20 grams. I discuss the limitations of protein uptake in my e-book, Natural Anabolics. The "expert" also says that any excess protein ingested is either excreted or converted to fat. Yet countless studies have shown that eating a higher protein diet while dieting helps to conserve lean mass, such as muscle, under low caloric conditions. In addition, excess protein is never converted into fat in active people, but is oxidized in the liver. The CR article also brings up the old--and thoroughly discarded--notions that too much protein can cause calcium excretion and harm the kidneys. Both statements are simply false. Protein drinks can be useful for those on a diet because they provide concentrated, high quality, easily absorbed sources of protein minus excess calories or carbohydrates, or fats that would tend to hinder dieting efforts. They are also convenient when you simply either don't have the time, or the inclination to consume a meal.
Yes, there is a definite problem with quality control in many sports supplements. But this doesn't involve contaminants such as heavy metals. The problems instead lie in dishonest or deceptive labeling, such as those products that do not list precise amounts of ingredients, but rather group them as "proprietary" contents. The problem with such products is that you can be paying a lot of money for very little active ingredients, and that is, without question, deceitful. Another problem is that some companies add untested and potentially dangerous ingredients to their products. Unless you can find safety and efficacy evidence for these esoteric ingredients, they are best avoided. And it's also true, as noted in the CR report, that many athletes consume far more protein than they need. The author of the study that found a maximum absorption of 20 grams of protein per meal in young, weight-trained men, told me that if you ingest five protein meals containing 20 grams per meal, that amount would cover any bodybuilder's protein requirements. Under dieting conditions, I would add a bit more, about one gram per pound of bodyweight, since the excess protein will not hinder dieting efforts, but will help to spare lean mass while dieting.
For the truth about protein uptake, read my e-book, Natural Anabolics,available at jerrybrainum.com.