Is there a vegan protein powder without heavy metals?
Looking for a vegan protein powder without heavy metals? There is no such thing. All plants contain heavy metals, so do not let trace amounts deter you from eating plant protein.
In recent years, there has been increasing global public health concern about environmental contamination by heavy metals. Soils polluted with heavy metals are becoming more and more common due to an increase in geologic and anthropogenic activities. There has also been increasing concern about the levels of heavy metals found in protein powders, specifically vegan protein powders. Is this concern legitimate?
What are heavy metals?
Heavy metals are naturally occurring elements with a relatively high density compared to water. They are all around us – in the ground we walk on, in the water we drink, and in the food we eat. Some heavy metals are good for us. For example, we need trace amounts of copper and iron to stay healthy. Other heavy metals – such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, and mercury – are toxic and can cause health problems, even at lower levels of exposure. They are also classified as human carcinogens by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
Why are there heavy metals in plants?
Heavy metals are in ALL plants because they are natural constituents of the Earth’s crust. They are not added to protein powders, they are absorbed from the soil by the plant itself.
Should I worry about heavy metals in protein powder?
A non-profit called the Clean Label Project claims that most protein powders contain lead and that vegan protein powders contain, on average, twice the amount of lead per serving as protein powders made from animal products. They also claim that plant-based protein powders contain mercury, cadmium, and arsenic, in some cases at levels above regulatory thresholds. Although these findings are informative, they are not necessarily concerning.
Simply because there are detectable amounts of heavy metals in protein powder does not render it unsafe to consume, nor does it discount the benefits it offers as part of a balanced diet. To put matters into perspective, according to a study by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, we consume more metals from common foods like kale, apples, avocados than we consume from plant-based supplements. In other words, if you are eating a healthy serving of any of these foods, you are probably ingesting more heavy metals than you would from a serving of vegan powder.
The heavy metal scare created by the Clean Label Project is misleading. We should take these findings seriously, especially given the popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets, but they should not deter us from using plant-based protein powders. Heavy metals are in all the plants we eat, and we should not just stop eating fruits and vegetables because they contain heavy metals. Instead of worrying about heavy metals in vegan protein powder, you should focus your attention on the ingredient list. Here are a few ingredients to avoid.
Avoid food additives.
Although they are not necessarily bad for you in small quantities, food additives can add up quickly, especially if you drink a protein shake every day. At higher quantities, food additives can cause gastrointestinal (GI) side effects.
Many food additives are hard to digest and sit in your gut for longer than they should. This gives your gut bacteria more time to ferment (eat), and as they eat, these bacteria produce gas, which causes bloating, cramps, and nausea.
In the short term, gas also slows colonic transit (the amount of time it takes food to travel through the colon), which can lead to constipation. In the long term, food additives disrupt regulatory pathways in the intestine and trigger the development of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and systemic inflammatory disorders.
Keep an eye out for artificial sweeteners too. Artificial sweeteners are poorly absorbed by the gut, which means that they feed your hungry gut bacteria. They also alter the composition of your gut microbiota (the collection of microorganisms that help you digest food). This can lead to serious GI problems and widespread inflammation.
Finally, artificial sweeteners, especially sugar alcohols like xylitol, can cause diarrhea because they draw water into your gut. Now you might finally have something to blame for those post-protein shake trips to the bathroom.
Here is a list of the most common food additives in protein powder:
acacia gum, acesulfame potassium, artificial flavors, aspartame, carrageenan, cellulose gum, dextrin, dextrose, erythritol, gellan gum, guar gum, gum arabic, inulin, locust bean gum, “natural” flavors*, maltodextrin, rice syrup solids, soy lecithin, silica, sucralose, sunflower lecithin, xanthan gum, xylitol
When it comes to identifying food additives, go with your gut. 😉 As a rule of thumb, they are the ingredients that you cannot pronounce. Food additives are not the only thing to look out for when buying protein powder, however. There are several other ingredients that can upset your stomach.
chickpeas, coconut, vanilla, monk fruit
Protein Matrix Comprised of (Whey Protein Concentrate, Whey Protein Isolate, Calcium Caseinate, Micellar Casein, Milk Protein Isolate, Egg Albumen, Glutamine Peptides), Polydextrose, Sunflower Creamer (Sunflower Oil, Corn Syrup Solids, Sodium Caseinate, Mono- and Diglycerides, Dipotassium Phosphate, Tricalcium Phosphate, Soy Lecithin, Tocopherols), Natural and Artificial Flavor, MCT Powder (Medium Chain Triglycerides, Nonfat Dry Milk, Disodium Phosphate, Silicon Dioxide), Lecithin, Cellulose Gum, Salt, Yellow 5, Sucralose, Acesulfame Potassium, Papain, Bromelain.
*This is the actual ingredient list of one of the best-selling protein powders in the United States.
Avoid protein concentrates and isolates.
Finding an additive-free protein powder is hard. Finding an additive-free protein powder made with real foods is next to impossible. Why? Most protein powders are made with protein concentrates and isolates, foods stripped of everything but the protein. They are listed on the ingredient list as “pea protein,” for example, as opposed to “peas.”
We will not go into the details, but protein concentrates and isolates undergo heavy mechanical and chemical processing before becoming protein powder. Sometimes, manufacturers use chemical solvents like hexane to separate the protein from the food. This means that what you end up putting into your body looks nothing like real food.
The potential problem here is that your gut might not know what to do with ingredients like these. Your gut prefers the real thing, not some heavily-processed imitation, so protein concentrates and isolates might be hard to digest for people with sensitive stomachs.
Instead of protein concentrates or isolates, we use chickpeas. Chickpeas are simply dried and ground before becoming protein powder. Minimally-processed ingredients like these are easy to digest and a stomach-friendly alternative to protein concentrates and isolates.
We also like chickpeas because, compared to other plant protein sources, they are high in soluble fiber. Unlike insoluble fiber, which can have a laxative effect, soluble fiber increases in size as it moves through your digestive tract. This can help make your bowel movements easier and more regular.
“I just finished my first bag and ordered 2 more! I Iove this stuff! I have IBS and every protein powder hurts my stomach…except drink wholesome!”
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.