hemp protein controversy

3 Things that Shouldn’t Be in Your Protein Powder (But Probably Are)

And there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to that last question…

Although I’ve managed to get plenty of protein from whole foods for the past few years, I’ve always acknowledged that for certain people — people who want to gain weight, build muscle, try to hit macronutrient levels, or just want some peace of mind — supplementing makes more sense.

And yes, we’ve moved past the idea that supplementing a plant-based diet somehow make the diet wrong, or unnatural. We know there are some you need, and many you don’t. Protein is a maybe, depending on age, goals, and the rest of your diet.)

But if you take vegan protein powder yourself, there’s one question you should most definitely know the answer to:

What’s in your protein powder?

I started looking more closely at protein powders a few months ago, for my kids’ sake. They’re both young plant-based athletes, and — call it parental paranoia if you want — I find myself worrying about their picky eating habits, specifically that most of the foods they love (fresh fruits and vegetables, especially in smoothies) aren’t necessarily dense in protein or, more generally, in total calories.

But when I started looking at the ingredient lists of the common plant-based powders, I was surprised and disappointed. Unfamiliar and artificial ingredients, plus sweeteners (even natural ones) that I knew they wouldn’t like the taste of in their smoothies.

So I did some more digging…

And it got worse. Waaay worse.

Today I want to share a bit about what I found, in hopes that it helps you to make more informed decisions when choosing a protein powder, if you choose to use them.

And I’ll start with the one that scares me the most…

1. Heavy Metals and Other Carcinogens

Now, I know what you’re thinking.

Heavy metals and chemicals in my protein powder? Nah. No way. I get the good stuff. And it comes from plants.

Think again. Last year, the Clean Label Project™ completed a study examining 134 plant-based and animal-based protein powder products from 52 different brands. They screened for over 130 toxins, including heavy metals, BPA, pesticides, and other contaminants with ties to health problems.

And you know what they found? (You might want to sit down for this one.)

Many of the most popular plant-based powders were ranked the worst for their high levels of contaminants like heavy metals. In fact, plant-based proteins ranked lower than animal-based proteins on average.

So how does that nasty stuff get into your powder?

According to 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.)”

Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common heavy metals and chemicals to see what the study actually found:

BPA (bisphenol A)

By now you’ve probably heard of BPA, but most people don’t actually know what it is. BPA, or bisphenol A, is a chemical used in a lot of commercial product packaging as a way to strengthen the plastic.

High amounts of BPA, however, is known to cause cancerous tumors, birth defects, and other mental and physical health issues.

A few years ago, BPA garnered a lot of attention when it was discovered to leach from that plastic into drinks, like water. Since then, many popular water bottles have gone BPA-free, but it’s still commonly used in many food containers, including some plastic containers that store protein powder, or even the plastic measuring scoop often included in the tub.

The Clean Label Project study found that 55% of protein powders tested had high levels of BPA, and one had over 25 times the allowed regulatory limit in just one serving.

According to the study, nearly 70% of plant-based protein powders contained measurable amounts of lead. The potential mental and physical health problems associated with lead are well documented, so why is it showing up in these protein powders?

The primary problem seems to be where the ingredients are sourced from. Lead in the ground seeps into the growing food before harvesting, and stays there as it’s turned into your powder.


Arsenic is a naturally occurring chemical often found in water, food, and soil.

This is a particular problem with rice-based products, which is grown in water-flooded conditions, and arsenic in the soil finds its way into the roots of rice crops and is eventually stored in the grains.

Arsenic, of course, is also known to cause a number of health problems including cancer.

So why is it in plant-based protein powder? Primarily because of poorly sourced brown rice protein isolate.


According to the same Clean Label Project study, 74% of protein powders contained measurable amounts of cadmium.

Cadmium is another natural toxic element often found in rocks and soil, and because it does not corrode easily, it’s often used in batteries. That’s right, batteries.

And you guessed it, cadmium also has links to cancer.

But what if my powder is organic?

That was one of my first questions as well. But organic, although good for other reasons, is no help when it comes to heavy metals. Organic protein powders had on average twice the amount of heavy metals as non-organic options, so if a brand doesn’t disclose heavy metal information to you, you’re left wondering.

2. Sweeteners and Flavorings

These days, sweeteners are added to just about every processed food, so it should come as no surprise that they’re also often added to protein powders.

But here’s the thing.

Sweeteners are totally unnecessary. Same goes with flavors (natural or not) like vanilla. The only reason companies often adds the sweeteners and flavors is to try and mask the taste.

In turn, however, they’re adding unnatural ingredients that not only taste fake, but are potentially harmful.

Take a look at common artificial sweeteners like acesulfame potassium, sucralose, or splenda, for example. These sweeteners with their potent taste not only train the brain to crave sweet foods, but are known to increase the risk of diabetes and obesity.

How about natural sweeteners like stevia or monk fruit, you ask?

In my opinion, if it isn’t serving me (or my kids), I don’t want to add it to my smoothie, where the additional sweetness only makes things taste less natural. I want my smoothie to taste like the fruit that’s in it, and no sweeter.

3. Fillers, Preservatives, and Gums

While the contaminants scare me most, the biggest shocker I came across in my research on protein powders was what I learned about fillers.

First, there’s a reason why you don’t see percentages next to protein powder ingredients on labels.

Many brands, like the one I used to take, boast a “blend of pea, rice, hemp, and chia” (for example) to create the appearance of a complete amino acid profile. But if they’re not telling you the amounts of each in the product, then nothing prevents them from using 95 or even 99 percent of the cheapest powder, and only blending the others to make up the remaining 5 percent or less.

There’s nothing to tell you it’s pretty much just one type of protein. And that the amino acid profile is incomplete.

In an industry so unregulated as supplements are, it’s not hard to imagine that’s what they do.

Besides cheap proteins, dextrin (a carbohydrate from starch) and maltodextrin (produced from corn, rice, potato starch, or wheat) are common fillers added to protein powder to bulk it up.

Then there are gums, like xanthan gum, which is derived from corn and soy and often used as a thickener in protein power. These gums are totally unnatural, and often cause bloating and gas.

The misleading packaging means you don’t ever really know what’s in your powder. Sure, you might have an ordered ingredient list, but when you don’t know how much of each ingredient is included, you have know idea if your powder is really what it claims to be.

What’s In Your Protein Powder Matters

When I first started doing this research, it terrified me. Since I was just looking for a small boost to their intake, not a 40-gram megadose of protein, I had assumed choosing a natural, plant-based option would be easy.

But toxic heavy metals?

And not really knowing how much of each protein is in it?

As a parent, the last thing I’d want is to think I’m making a smart decision to help my kids’ health and athletic potential — and actually be giving them something that does the opposite.

So: armed with this knowledge of the problems with most protein powders, what do you do?

For starters, your research.

A quick search will produce a number of lists created by reputable sources of powders that are better than others. Companies that source ingredients from the right places and spend the time to do the appropriate testing.

Or there’s the other option… create your own.

Ultimately, when I couldn’t find what I wanted on the market, that’s what I opted to do. (Just like with Complement, where I wanted a way to be able to get just the handful of important nutrients missing from a plant-based diet in from a single source.)

For the past several months, the No Meat Athlete team and I — along with the help from a small group of super-engaged community members — have been working on a cleaner, healthier, plant-based protein powder, free of heavy metals, sweeteners, and other fillers. And one which we can be completely transparent about which ingredients are included and exactly how much of each.

Not a giant dose of protein, just a boost, meant to “complement” what’s already in a healthy plant-based diet.

In other words, a protein powder I’d be comfortable giving to my own kids.

That new (better, cleaner) powder is now available to the public. And I couldn’t be happier to get it out into the world.

Check out Complement Protein, and never worry about what’s in your protein powder again.

Vegan Supplements: Which Ones Do You Need?

Written by Matt Frazier

I’m here with a message that, without a doubt, isn’t going to make me the most popular guy at the vegan potluck.

But it’s one I believe is absolutely critical to the long term health of our movement, and that’s why I’m committed to sharing it. Here goes…

Vegans need more than just B12.

Sure, Vitamin B12 might be the only supplement required by vegans in order to survive. But if you’re anything like me, you’re interested in much more than survival — you want to thrive.

So what else do vegans need?

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I would like to know how the products were tested and what your lab resources were. It somehow seems disingenuous to state that these powders contain all of these health deteriorating ingredients, then tout your own brand. A legitimate study with methods and resources would be believable; this I’m not too sure of…

Besides buying YOUR product that is obviously superior, would it be possible for your team to write my school report for creative writing?

Do we really need protein powder because even the good ones are processed

Where can I see the breakdown of which products were tested and what the results were? I use an plant based protein powder and I want to see if it is on the list.

Thank you for making a clean plant-protein powder!

Any chance of a nut-free version. I know some very active folks with a tree nut allergy/sensitivity that would like to be plant-based.

Thanks for your consideration!

I’d love to know this answer too. I would like to use your powder in our household but my husband is highly allergic to all nuts. Do you have a nut-free alternative?

I would love to have a list of the “clean” protein powders. I take good care of myself (or thought I did before this was published), and looks like taking really good care would be to be sure to take in no
harmful chemicals or additives.

Frankly, most of what this article discusses explicitly resonates personally at an implicit level. Arsenic? No thank you.

Soy, in general is controversial, and I’m conflicted. I’d appreciate something in layman’s terms that spells it out. “Pros” and “cons,” what are they? Does it deserve the demonization I’ve long assumed?

Please contact me with the well vetted protein powder.

Thank you for the in depth article. I am glad you are creating a healthy protein powder. For real public service, it would have been in integrity to share your list of findings and share the list of the safest protein powders out there. You might have considered sharing all of your references if you declined to do that. I know you may have to make a living. However, trusting the universe to support you when you are generous with your resources and findings will lend more credibility. Plus people are more likely going to purchase from you as you are showing mutual respect and integrity. Wishing you the best!

Seconding what Skysong said. The blogs would be received better and more credible/sincere with references included to help inform the readers. I would even recommend having a policy call-to-action that is in line with the subject matter- see Humane Society /policy focused org for a take action link? We come to your site seeking information to make informed choices. Without references or greater substance, the blogs simply read as product advertisements.

Very informative. Many proteins does make correct claims.

Thanks for the valuable info on protein powders. Now, we are all eager to have you rate them….and recommend your favorite brands and varieties.

I sure will start scrupulously reading those ingredient labels!!

BTW: My fitness club exclusively uses SWIIG brand. Reactions?

Philadelphia, PA

Hello. Thank you for this information. In the past I have used Boku Super Protein who claims to have a low metal count and pays attention to the ingredients in their protein. Also I am currently using Vega Premium Protein which also is supposed to cognizant of the metal count. Were these a part of your research? If not do you know anything about their products?

How do I get a list of the good n bad providers? Hope you get the UK on your distribution list for your supplements soon. Love NMA

3 Things that Shouldn’t Be in Your Protein Powder (But Probably Are) And there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to that last question… Although I’ve managed to get plenty of protein from whole

8 things you didn’t know about hemp

Early last year, Congress passed a Farm Bill authorizing a wide range of federal agricultural programs.

Tucked away in that legislation was an amendment granting states and universities the right to research a plant that has long been banned from cultivation in the United States — hemp.

Hemp production was banned throughout the United States in 1937, with the passing of the Marihuana Tax Act. Two weeks ago, North Carolina’s House and Senate passed a bill that would legalize the production of industrial hemp in the state.

The Drug Enforcement Administration told PBS NewsHour it has granted several dozen permits to grow hemp in nine states.

The Drug Enforcement Administration told PBS NewsHour it has granted several dozen permits to grow hemp in nine states including Kentucky. Graphic by Lisa Overton/PBS NewsHour Weekend

Marijuana and hemp are varieties of cannabis that developed due to selective breeding: Hemp for its fiber and marijuana for its narcotic components.

While the two look and smell-alike, they are chemically and structurally different.

The major difference between the two is the levels of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — or the chemical in marijuana that gets people high. Graphic by Lisa Overton/PBS NewsHour Weekend

The major difference between the two is the levels of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — or the chemical in marijuana that gets people high.

Hemp has virtually no trace of THC, while pot has around 10 percent; some strains of marijuana can have as much as 27 percent THC.

Here are eight things you may not have known about hemp.

1. Hemp will not get you high, but it may give you a headache.

Hemp contains just .3 percent of THC, the chemical that can cause feelings of euphoria. If you were to ingest hemp seeds with the hopes of getting high, you won’t — and you might get a headache instead.

You might also feel as if you had taken a strong laxative, as studies have shown hemp seed to have significant constipation-curing qualities.

2. Natives of a small island off the coast of China may have been the first to use hemp.

Archaeologists found pottery bearing impressions of cannabis cord, while unearthing a Stone Age Taiwanese village, according to the 1980 book, “Marihuana: The First Twelve Thousand Years” by Ernest L. Abel.

On mainland China during Second Century B.C., people made clothes from hemp.

And hemp’s use as a cloth for swaddling infants and covering the bodies of the dead was mentioned in the sacred Confucian texts known as the “Book of Rites”.

3. Common household items can be made with hemp, from birdseed to ice cream.

Hand bags and bath products are among the many hemp products for sale at the “Capitol Hemp” store on May 20, 2010 in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC. Hemp is not marijuana, but its resemblance to its cannabis cousin has kept the plant banned in the United States for decades despite a variety of uses for textiles, food, cosmetics and other purposes. Photo by Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

Hemp fiber has long been valued for its strength and versatility.

The North American Industrial Hemp Council estimates that hemp can be used to make more than 25,000 products, from the paper pages of Bibles to building materials for homes.

The fibers were used to make rope, boat caulking and sails during the time of the Vikings. The word canvas can be traced back to the Greek kannabis and Latin cannabis, or hemp.

Historians claim America’s first flags were made of hemp cloth.

Henry Ford fashioned a car panel from a plastic derived from straw, pine, hemp and ramie in order to help farmers during the Great Depression, according to a Aug. 14, 1941 New York Times article.

And because hemp oil penetrates better than linseed oil, it has been used as an industrial lubricant, Charles T. Ambrose of the University of Kentucky School of Medicine and the author of “Transylvania University and its Hemp Connection” told PBS NewsHour.

Just last week, Bruce Dietzen drove from Florida to Colorado in a fiery red convertible made out of hemp. Dietzen modeled the car that runs on corn after Mazda’s sporty Miata.

“One version gets you high. The other version you can make a car out of. They’re both cannabis,” he told the Denver Post.

4. In the 1600s, property owners in North America had to grow hemp.

By way of a royal decree, King James I required every property owner in Jamestown to grow 100 plants of hemp for export in 1619, according to “Hemp: American History Revisited: The Plant with a Divided History” by Robert Deitch.

Jamestown Colony was England’s first permanent settlement in North America run by the Virginia Company.

The hemp was used to provide cordage and canvas for British ships, Ambrose said.

Similar hemp decrees were later issued in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Hemp was vital in almost every part of an industrial society and it is the raw material for rope, as shown in this picture circa 1883. Without rope, ships could not sail and heavy cargo could not be loaded, fish could not be caught and water would remain in the wells. Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images

5. What do Woody Harrelson and Mitch McConnell have in common?

Why a fondness for hemp, of course.

The former “Cheers” star and current Senate majority leader and Kentucky’s state senator have been on separate, but parallel crusades to make hemp legal again in the U.S.

In 1996, Harrelson planted four hemp seeds in rural Kentucky and was arrested, CBS reported. Charges of marijuana possession were later dropped.

He then made a movie called “Hempsters: Plant the Seed” in 2010.

McConnell, who represents the state that first began growing hemp in the 1770s and went on to become a major producer, harvesting 15,000 tons per year in the 1840s to 40,000 tons per year by the 1850s, started his own hemp crusade in 2013.

“We are laying the groundwork for a new commodity market for Kentucky farmers,” McConnell told Politico Magazine. “And by exploring innovative ways to use industrial hemp to benefit a variety of Kentucky industries, the pilot programs could help boost our state’s economy and lead to future jobs.”

6. Hemp for Victory!

That was the name of a U.S. Department of Agriculture-run program to encourage farmers to grow hemp during World War II.

Faced with a shortage of Manila hemp that was imported and used in ship’s rigging, the U.S. government had to act quickly.

The answer? Grow hemp on U.S. soil, where it had thrived – especially in Kentucky – more than a century before.

For decades the program was thought to be a myth, until the late 1980s, when a group of hemp activists reportedly found copies of the “Hemp for Victory” video in the Library of Congress archives.

7. Hemp seed contains a nutrient also found in breast milk.

The Oil found in hemp seed is rich in gamma linolenic acid (GLA), a nutritious unsaturated fatty acid, which is also found in breast milk.

In addition to GLA, hemp seed oil is packed with other omega-3 and 6 fatty acids, making it a healthier alternative to many other vegetable oils, Ambrose told PBS NewsHour.

8. Leftover hemp stalks can be used to store energy.

Last year, a team of scientists led by David Mitlin at the University of Alberta made a supercapacitor, an energy storage device, out of leftover hemp, the BBC reported.

While supercapacitors store less energy than regular batteries, they can be charged in a shorter amount of time and deliver that energy in a speedier fashion.

Mitlin told the PBS NewsHour that these supercapacitors are great for things that need a fast, potent burst of energy — like charging an iPhone in minutes for two hours of talk time.

For their experiment, Mitlin’s team cooked down discarded hemp stalks that were being stored by the government in Alberta, Canada, where it is legal to grow industrial hemp.

Want to learn even more about hemp? Watch PBS NewsHour Weekend’s report from Kentucky, where officials and farmers are experimenting with creating a new industry around this plant:

Left: Tim Gordon, left, and Hunter Konchan, both of CBDRx, harvest hemp from the companies farm in Longmont, October 08, 2015. CBDRx Natural Healing is an organic hemp farm. Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Go Deeper

  • 8 things you didn’t know
  • cannabis
  • editors’ picks
  • energy
  • hemp
  • kentucky
  • marihuana tax act
  • marijuana
  • mitch mcconnell
  • pbs newshour weekend
  • woody harrelson

Carey Reed assists in covering breaking and feature news for NewsHour Weekend’s website. She also helps the NewsHour Weekend broadcast team in the production of the show. She is interested in the flourishing fields of data journalism and information visualization and recently graduated, with honors, from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Although hemp and marijuana look and smell the same, the two cannabis plants are quite different.