Adding protein powder to a glass of milk or a shake is a common gesture among athletes and, above all, among people who want to gain muscle . Protein is essential for building muscle, ensuring bone strength, and numerous other bodily functions. But are protein supplements really healthy?
Most protein supplements are sold in the form of protein powder. These proteins come from plants (soybeans, peas, rice or potatoes), eggs or milk (casein or whey, the latter also known as whey). In addition to the protein itself, these products often have other ingredients such as added sugars , artificial flavorings , thickeners, minerals, and vitamins. The normal thing is that a ‘scoop’ includes between 10 and 30 grams of protein.
This mixture of ingredients, in addition to other factors, creates risks that the consumer should be aware of before deciding to take protein powder, according to Kathy McManus , director of the Department of Nutrition at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, an affiliate of the Harvard Medicine Network. .
Risks, especially digestive
First of all, it should be noted that, when dealing with protein supplements, their safety evaluation depends on the manufacturers. Thus established by the US Food and Drug Administration, the country from which the main brands of protein supplements come. In the American case, it is not possible to know if the ingredients of the supplements that the manufacturers say they carry are the real ones.
In the second instance, the common composition of ingredients can trigger health problems . Digestive problems have been reported : “People with allergies or difficulties digesting lactose may experience gastrointestinal problems if they take protein supplements from milk,” McManus notes.
Also, some have high amounts of added sugars and calories with clear consequences: turning a glass of milk into a food of more than 1,200 calories , gaining weight and leading to an unhealthy spike in blood sugar . In this sense, the American Heart Association recommends a maximum of 24 grams of added sugars per day in women, and 36 grams in men.
For all these reasons, Kathy McManus does not recommend including these supplements in the diet. In the case of a nutritional need, they are always included under medical supervision.
Toxins and heavy metals
A study published in 2018 by the nonprofit Clean Label Project detected toxins in the form of heavy metals and BPA in protein powder supplements. Among the toxins were high levels of lead , BPA, mercury , cadmium and arsenic, substances linked to different types of cancer, reproductive problems and brain damage.
The analysis was carried out taking as reference 134 of the best-selling protein supplements in the US. Approximately 75% had significant levels of lead, with supplements from plants having the most. Likewise, the herbal supplements contained mercury, cadmium and arsenic, exceeding the maximum recommended levels in several cases.
In addition, 55% of the products tested contained significant levels of BPA, an endocrine disruptor found in plastic packaging that interferes with the hormone that controls appetite. You can check the more and less healthy protein supplements on the Clean Label Project website .