Spring is in the air, and you know what that means? It’s time for spring cleaning — and that includes your supplement cabinet.
If you’re like most person, you have a smattering of dietary supplements stashed somewhere in your house.
A few of them may be part of your current daily nutritional lifestyle.
Some you may have bought on a whim after seeing flashy before-and-after photos in an infomercial or on Instagram.
You might have purchased others from a friend, co-worker or neighbor based on their anecdotal success stories (maybe just to get them to stop nagging you about “getting involved” with their side gig).
And then there are those that you stopped taking a while ago, that have now expired (or just aren’t worth taking).
But do you know which of these supplements may be contaminated?
Recently a consumer advocacy group known as the Clean Label Project conducted a study on protein powders, and they’ve been making waves in the supplement industry with the surprising results.[i]
The group is receiving everything from praise (mostly from consumers) to cease-and-desist letters (from the companies whose products didn’t test well). No matter which side you’re on, it’s a good reminder to revisit what’s in your supplement cabinet and why.
For the study, over 130 top-selling products (according to Nielson and Amazon.com top sellers lists) were tested for heavy metals (arsenic, cadmium, mercury and lead), over 100 pesticides, plasticizers bisphenol-A (BPA), bisphenol-S (BPS), residual solvents, mycotoxins, antibiotic residues and other potentially dangerous ingredients.
While Life Time’s protein powders were not tested in the recent Clean Label Project study, we do receive Certificates of Analysis (C of A’s) for every batch produced, and we know that our powders have never exceeded acceptable limits for the contaminants that Clean Label Project measured. And you can be assured that we would never release out-of-spec products to our consumers.
All of the substances mentioned above are potentially dangerous, depending on the dose and frequency of exposure. Most are either known to increase our risk of developing cancer, or are known endocrine disruptors (substances that alter how our hormones are produced or function in our bodies).
What’s interesting about this particular study is that the group tested levels found in just one serving of protein powder, but many person who use protein powders may consume more than one serving each day (myself included).
The negative impacts of building up heavy metal toxicity can manifest in a variety of ways: digestive problems, anxiety and depression, infertility, general nerve damage (that can cause tingling or tremors), fatigue and a number of other symptoms.
You may look at this list and think that some of these symptoms are common, and you’d be right! And although common, they’re not normal.
If you are currently experiencing any of the ailments listed above or if you just want to be proactive so you don‘t experience them, you should take a look at how some of the brands you’re familiar with fared in this study.
DETECTABLE OR DANGEROUS?
Clean Label Project’s data shocked the supplement industry by showing that over 70% of the products tested contained detectable levels of heavy metals, which is extremely alarming. Fifty-five percent of the samples also had detectable levels of BPA (Bisphenol A).
A “detectable” level means that the equipment used was sensitive enough to detect and quantify a given substance. “Dangerous” levels refer to levels that are known to pose a threat to human health.
Some brands had levels that exceeded the established intake limits in a single serving, while others tested “positive,” but were below amounts outlined by the Environmental Protection Agency and/or FDA.[ii],[iii]
On average, plant-based proteins, especially those marketed as “organic,” had higher heavy metal levels than animal-based protein powders. Egg- and whey-based powders tended to be the cleanest products tested.
There’s a good explanation for these general differences, and it’s related to the fact that heavy metals exist naturally in our environment — in soil, air pollution and water. There are probably even trace amounts on the keyboard I’m typing this post on.
In fact, the produce you (and I) buy at the supermarket or farmers’ market naturally absorbs whatever is in the soil, including heavy metals, pesticide residues or other environmental contaminants. We know so much about this natural occurrence that the EPA regularly updates regionally specific screening guidelines.[iv]
But just because toxins are ubiquitous in the environment and our food supply, including healthy and organic produce, doesn’t mean that consumable products should test at or above acceptable limits.
A CALL FOR SAFER, HIGHER-QUALITY PRODUCTS
The Clean Label Project group is on a mission to increase consumer awareness and product integrity across the consumer goods category by testing and publishing data on everything we wear, apply to our skin or consume. It’s a noble mission and one that I agree with whole-heartedly.
In just a couple of generations, our diets have been morphed from whole, unprocessed foods grown locally into a global marketplace more interested in cranking out “edible products” with ever-increasing profit margins.
The supplement industry isn’t much different — it’s probably worse. Every year there’s a finite amount of raw ingredients available on the planet that all supplement manufacturers compete for. Some are safe and effective, and others are just cheap.
Some companies pay a premium to select the purest, best-tasting and most effective forms for their ingredients. These companies invest in the ingredients that are going into the product. And they invest more money into testing every batch of ingredients and finished goods than they do on marketing and distribution. They’re in it to make products that are safe and effective, and if they’re lucky they make a little profit, too.
Sadly, most manufacturers and marketers seek out the cheapest ingredients. Then they get to work masking the taste and texture of lower-quality ingredients with artificial flavors, colors and texture enhancers. They’ll make a product that’s barely palatable, shortcut some or all of the testing, and make their largest investments in marketing and distribution to maximize profits. Rather than test every batch, they skip testing on more batches than they test and hope their products don’t get tested by someone else.
In the end, the supplement industry can be looked at as an interesting dichotomy. There are companies that function as sales and marketing engines that happen to make supplements, and there are companies that make supplements and happen to have sales and marketing person.
You have a choice when re-filling your supplement cabinet this spring. You can bargain shop for the cheapest supplements you can find, pay significantly more for products that have lots of flashy branding and BOGO offers, or invest in premium products that a trusted health and fitness professional recommends for you and your program.
I urge you not to bargain shop or fall victim to the marketing hype of the mass-produced brands.
At Life Time, we believe supplements can and should be a safe and effective part of everyone’s nutritional lifestyle. That’s why for nearly twenty years we’ve taken an active role in formulating our own line of products to our preferred specifications using the highest-quality ingredients available.
We only partner with trusted manufacturers who share our desire to stand behind the products we offer and who test every batch of raw ingredients and finished goods to be sure they meet or exceed all quality standards.
As a dietitian and a “heavy user” of Life Time products for the past decade, I’m sort of a canary in the coal mine. If there’s something wrong with our formulas, I’d know by now.
Wondering about which supplements your newly cleaned cabinet should have in it? Connect with a fitness professional to discuss your overall health and fitness strategy, and find out which supplements best support your efforts.
In health, Paul Kriegler, Registered Dietitian and Life Time — Nutrition Program Development Manager
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.