US nonprofit Clean Label Project has defended the techniques it used to produce a controversial study of popular protein powders.
The organisation says that its study shows that lead, BPA (Bisphenol A), mercury, cadmium and arsenic are present in many top-selling nutritional protein powder products.
More than 75% of plant-based protein powders had detectable levels of lead, while one was shown to contain more than 25 times the allowed regulatory limit of BPA in just one serving.
Other headline findings from the study were that:
- In addition to lead, plant-based protein powders contained mercury, cadmium and arsenic, in several cases above health-based guidelines
- 55% of protein powders tested had detectable levels of BPA, a known endocrine disruptor
- Certified organic products averaged twice as much heavy metal content
But the study has come in for strong criticism from the US sports nutrition and supplements industry.
Industry concern centres on use of the term “detectable levels”. Trade bodies and brand owners have argued that the term is meaningless if levels of contaminants detected are well within national safety limits. They also point out that the substances that Clean Label Project project tested for are widely found in water, air, soil, and food, and their presence in protein powders are typically at much lower levels than many every day foods.
Criticism has also been levelled at the Clean Label Project over its testing methodologies, and for failing to peer-review its study. Questions have also been raised about its funding.
Andrea Wong, vice president, scientific & regulatory affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN),commented: “The fact that this study allegedly detected contaminants in higher-than-acceptable levels is concerning to CRN, but, with the limited information that was disclosed, we are unable to decipher the facts.”
Wong continued: “A detectable level of a contaminant is not necessarily an unsafe level—it merely means that the instrumentation is sophisticated enough to detect it.” He also challenged the Clean Label Project on its “subjective” rating system, urging it to “increase transparency”.
The Natural Products Association was blunter, claiming that the study amounted to “poisonous fake news”. NPA’s president and CEO, Dan Fabricant, said: “NPA believes this group should disclose its funders and the methodology it used to produce this study, so the public can make an educated decision about what products to use.”
One brand owner said that to remove background level presence of common and persistent substances would degrade the nutritional quality of final products.
But the Clean Label Project has defended its techniques and approach, including its reporting of detection levels that meet national guidelines. Its executive director, Jacklyn Bowen, insisted that “the fundamental basis of safety of these products has been called into question”. Talking to Nutragredients-USA, she said: “The FDA has been extremely diligent about traditional food safety criteria, in looking at things like listeria or salmonella, things that could kill you tomorrow. What we are interested in looking at is things that could affect your health 15 or 20 years down the road When I look at this data, on BPA for example, for those companies that say that they meet federal guidelines, well, almost half of your competitors figured out how to put out a product with no BPA in it.”
Answering questions on its website, Clean Label Project says that it is “in the process” of peer review. Defending its decision to publish data ahead of peer review, it says: “We chose to post our results in real time, specifically so that consumers can make educated decisions today regarding purchases that impact their family’s health.”