5 Secrets The Protein Powder Industry Doesn’t Want You To Know

How to pick a clean vegan protein powder (and know what to look for on the label beyond just the ingredients and serving size)

Supplements get a bad rap – and sometimes that’s deserved. But what about protein powders?

Full disclosure: you’re reading this article on the website of a brand that makes (among other things) a vegan protein powder. But before we ever thought of creating our own, we were protein powder users - and once we started digging into the facts and talking to manufacturers, we concluded protein powders might just be the most concerning everyday supplement out there.

First Off, That Study That You Probably Heard About…

A few years ago, The Clean Label Project™ published a study examining 134 plant-based and animal-based protein powder products from 52 different brands. The organization looked at over 130 toxins, including heavy metals, BPA, pesticides, and other contaminants.

Across the board, they found a range of unsavory elements that are tied to adverse health outcomes. And some of the plant-based options ranked the worst.

According to The Clean Label Project™: “Contaminants are the result of sourcing and production practices. Contaminants can be found in soils because of pesticides and mining run-off (ex. heavy metals) and can be absorbed into plants just like nutrients. They can also be the result of the manufacturing process (ex. BPA/BPS is using the lining of cans and containers and leach into the protein powder.)”

This is indeed disconcerting, although there have been questions raised about the methodology used in the study, the reporting and ranking (research methods were not published, and rather than listing actual test results, products were rated with stars), and possible undisclosed industry ties. Some plant-based brands have also responded with their own 3rd Party test results which paint a different picture.

Regardless of all that, heavy metals and BPA in your protein powder are not something to be taken lightly!

1. Checking For Heavy Metals, and Why Organic Is Good, But Not Enough

By definition, heavy metals are usually metallic chemical elements with a relatively high density that are toxic or poisonous at low concentrations. Examples of heavy metals include mercury (Hg), cadmium (Cd), arsenic (As), chromium (Cr), thallium (Tl), and lead (Pb).

On the other hand, most of these substances are found in nature and our soil - often in abundance, meaning that some will invariably pass into fruits and vegetables grown in that soil. And, unfortunately, organic products are no less at risk of contamination than conventionally grown.

"There’s no way of knowing about the heavy metal content in your protein powder, unless you look for a brand that discloses their test results and stands behind their claims with a “Proposition 65” badge."

There are, of course, limits set by the WHO and the FDA, for how much of heavy metals may be consumed daily with no adverse effects; since these are naturally-occurring substances, your body is good at dealing with them, as long as the intake is relatively small. The State of California, however, went a step further with their Proposition 65, and set the acceptable levels at 1/1000 of the No Adverse Effect Limit, on average.

This means that a Prop 65 compliant protein powder will be guaranteed to contain significantly lower levels of heavy metals. Unfortunately, there’s an industry trick for that one… Some manufacturers actually create two different packages for their product. The one that they sell in California has a disclosure that warns consumers about the high heavy metal content. The one they sell in the other 49 states? It does not.

So there’s no way of knowing about the heavy metal content in your protein powder, unless you look for a brand that stands behind their claims with a “Proposition 65” badge. So besides looking for Certified Organic products, make sure you always check for Prop 65 compliance, and whether a company tests for heavy metals in their protein powders (and discloses the results).

2. What The List Of Ingredients Might Be Hiding

There are great consumer-protection laws on the books, but, sadly, there are smart people trying to get around them. For instance, by law, protein products have to disclose the ingredients in order of quantity.

So if you look at the label, you should be able to get a sense for what makes up the bulk of your powder, even though there’s no way of knowing the actual percentages. But it’s even harder if the manufacturer uses a “Proprietary Blend”.

This allows them to hide the actual amounts of the ingredients. So they can advertise an exotic blend of nuts, seeds, and legumes, when in actuality, it’s 98% pea protein, with traces of other ingredients mixed in. The only way to be really sure of the composition is to look for transparent brands that list the percentages of each protein source used (like our Complement Protein :).

3. The Packaging Matters, Too

Ever purchased a huge, three pound tub of protein powder, only to find that the actual powder takes up less than 50% of it? With $14 billion spent on protein powders each year, that’s a lot of plastic - some of which will invariably miss the recycling bin and end up polluting the planet for decades (or centuries) to come.

What’s the solution? Well, a start would be switching to pouches - even if they’re still plastic, the amount of material used is much less. But to go even further in lowering your environmental footprint, look for biodegradable packaging, the kind that can be either composted in an industrial facility, or better yet, buried in your own garden to turn back into biomass.

An added benefit to using biodegradable packaging is that you’re not risking BPA contamination. Bisphenol A (BPA) is an industrial chemical used to harden plastic. A few years ago, it was discovered that BPA was leaching into the water from plastic containers. Now you’ll find that most plastic water bottles have a “BPA free” badge on the label. And for good reason: BPA has been linked to cancer, birth defects, and other illnesses.

Unfortunately, not all protein powders are “BPA free”. The test results from the Clean Label Project show that 55% of powders tested had high-levels of BPA. How can you protect yourself? Start by looking for “BPA Free” on the label of any product in a plastic package.

Key Takeaways

Even though consumers don’t lack choice in this area, the actual number of good, clean, high quality vegan protein powders is fairly small.

Certified Organic protein powders will generally contain less chemical nastiness, but unless they're Prop 65 compliant (or list their test results somewhere), heavy metals can still be an issue.

A 'proprietary blend' can be a good way of masking the fact that a vegan protein powder is 98% pea-based, since there are no rules about disclosing the actual composition.

Best way to make a delicious protein drink is by mixing a neutral powder with fruit or other whole-food ingredients - 'natural' flavors and sweeteners often aren't.

Complement Protein

4. What About The Stuff Added Intentionally?

Fillers, preservatives, gums, flavors… it’s absolutely amazing that you can get a protein powder in Strawberry Mochachino flavor, or Chocolate Peanut Butter (only one of these flavors is made up). Ever stop to check what actually went into it to make it taste that way? Or make it last for years on the shelf?

Apart from ‘natural’ flavors (natural being a very loose term, which can either mean it was sourced from nature, or made in a lab to exactly mimic nature), a big favorite of protein manufacturers everywhere are thickeners, gums, preservatives, and sweeteners. Whether to create a better ‘mouthfeel’, sweeten things up, or make them blend and last forever, there are no limits to the man-made inventions that can be added to your protein!

"If you want to keep it really clean, the best thing to do is look for a neutral flavored powder and flavor and sweeten it by mixing it with fruit, or some agave syrup if you want it sweeter."

If you ask us, there’s no need for xantham gum, dextrose, silica, or the rest of that “stuff” we’ve started adding to food in the last 50 years. And even organic sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit tend to leave a weird aftertaste, while thickeners invariably contain five-syllable words (a.k.a. things that don’t sound like something you should eat at all).

If you are buying organic, you are somewhat protected from all the chemical nastiness that may potentially go into your protein powder, but if you want to keep it really clean, the best thing to do is look for a neutral flavored protein powder and flavor and sweeten it by mixing it with fruit, or some agave syrup if you want it sweeter. Or a handful of strawberries, some cocoa powder, and a shot of coffee if you’re still pining for that strawberry mochachino.

5. Servings, Serving Sizes and Protein Quality

This last one may be a little less important, because it mostly impacts the health of your pocket book, rather than the health of your body and mind…

Take a look at the serving size and the number of servings in the package. Often times, manufacturers will only put 20 servings into a package, so be sure to calculate the price per serving. When you’re comparing products, they all might be hovering around $30-50, but they could have 33% less servings.

Be careful about huge serving sizes, too. If it says, 30 grams per serving, well, that’s a lot of powder... If you’re making a 8 or 16 ounce smoothie, that’s probably going to create a chalky texture.

More importantly, to loop back to #2, a cheap plant-based protein with huge serving sizes may very well be mostly made of peas, meaning the PDCAAS (Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score) is likely to be below 1, making it an incomplete protein source. Which, as you’re probably aware, is not the end of the world for vegans and vegetarians when it comes to actual food. But if you’re choosing a protein powder to supplement your intake, you should pick a brand offers a balanced amino acid profile - and actually tells you that, instead of just listing the amounts of amino acids and hoping that will be enough to satisfy (or at least confuse) most consumers.

What We Learned From All This (Besides All The Industry Tricks)

First of all, the protein powder market is huge, and still growing. But when we started searching around for potential manufacturing partners, we quickly got saturated with offers to either do a white label product (meaning we’d just be sticking our name on a ready-made formula, over which we’d have zero control), or creative ways to get around the issues outlined above (which was even more disconcerting, since these were manufacturers working with some of the biggest names out there).

Finally, we came to the conclusion that even though consumers don’t lack choice in this area, the actual number of good, clean, high quality vegan protein powders is fairly small. And that we should definitely create our own formula and cut no corners.

If you agree that there should be no compromise when it comes to protein powder, we hope this article helps you make a more informed choice. And if you’re wondering what our solution to ticking all those boxes is… really glad you asked! ;)

Tick all of the boxes with Complement Protein - no secrets or tricks, just pure, fully transparent plant protein.

Tick all of the boxes with Complement Protein - no secrets or tricks, just pure, fully transparent plant protein.

Complement Protein