Protein Powder Without Heavy Metals
Does Whey Protein Powder Contain Heavy Metals?
Yes, whey protein, like most natural food sources is likely to experience heavy metal exposure to a degree.
Let's emphasize three points for context -
- Heavy metals are widely present in the environment
- Heavy metals are essential for our bodies to function
- Concentrations matter
In 2018, a food safety news publication citing a study of protein powder heavy metal contaminations shocked the health and wellness community with these statistics  -
- 40% of 134 brands tested were found to have elevated levels of heavy metals.
- 75% of 134 brands tested contained measurable lead concentrations.
- 1 out of 10 whey protein brands contains lead and this is especially higher for brands that source within the U.S.A. due to soil contamination.
- Plant based protein powders had concentrations of arsenic, mercury, and cadmium, well above legal disclosure thresholds.
Heavy Metal Test Results - AGN Roots Grass-Fed Whey
We are proud to claim that AGN Roots Grass-fed Whey Protein represents the grass-fed whey protein with the lowest heavy metal concentrations we've found online to date. We believe this is due to 100% sustainable sourcing from animals certified "entire life on pasture" free from pesticides, nitrogen chemicals, and fertilizer intervention.
3rd Party Heavy Metal Testing - AGN Roots
We use local Ireland resources for heavy metal testing, a globally recognized life science company Eurofins Food Testing Ireland Limited - out of Cork. The concentrations above represent the most significant concentrations from all batches of the product currently available.
The heavy metal tests on AGN Roots dairy follow the INAB (Irish national accreditation board) schedule of accreditation. We utilize the most frequently used techniques for determining heavy metal concentrations in food testing offered by Eurofins; these include:
- AAS (atomic absorption spectroscopy)
- ICP-OES (optical emission spectroscopy)
- ICP-MS (mass spectrometer)
Informed Protein Certification Program
Part of our testing and accreditation schedule at AGN Roots includes assurance in the form of a globally recognized leader in dietary supplement certification programs. Among other focus areas, the Informed Protein program also ensures our product undergoes both heavy metal & pesticide testing.
Learn More: What is Informed Protein?
What are Heavy Metals?
Although metals exist virtually everywhere, including our water, soil, and air, most metallic elements can be found naturally occurring in the earth's crust and pose no threat. In many cases, metals are even considered vital for good health.
The metal we are used to hearing about in the context of what our body requires to function correctly, such as Iron, Zinc, Selenium, is often added to foods to fortify the nutritional benefits. This article will focus on the metals we don't want in our whey protein; these metals are the "Heavy Metals."
Metals characterized by "heavy" solicit a visceral response when coming across them, seldom in a proper context regarding our food or grassfed whey protein.
These heavy metals refer specifically to chemical elements toxic to the human body at low concentrations. In terms of weight & volume, they are relatively dense compared to other metallic elements found on the periodic table.
How do Heavy Metals Enter the Body?
Studies show that over 90% of heavy metal poisoning (assuming you are a non-smoker and don't work in an industrial plant) comes from contaminated foods, while the remaining small percentage is from water or air pollutants.
Consistent exposure over a long time is how heavy metals do their damage to our health.
If your daily routine consists of a grass-fed whey protein supplement after a workout, it must be free from the harm of heavy metal contamination.
Ideally, we all want our nutrition supplements to have the lowest heavy metals.
AGN Roots Grassfed Whey Protein contains the lowest heavy metal concentrations possible, due to the sustainable environment and farming practices (no chemicals, no pesticides, no fertilizers), manufacturing, and packaging.
Learn more about why Ireland Grassfed Dairy, unlike anywhere in the world, does not need to "rebalance" soil with chemicals.
Just like radiation exposure, exposure to low-level contamination over some time is much more damaging than being exposed to higher levels less frequently.
The significant four heavy metals most commonly found in contaminated foods or crops consist of mercury (Hg), cadmium (Cd), arsenic (As), and lead (Pb).
Does Whey Protein Contain Mercury?
Mercury is a naturally occurring metallic-element found in the environment; however, unlike some other metallic elements found on the periodic table, mercury serves no function in the human body whatsoever.
Trace quantities of mercury are in many things, including your whey protein powder.
How Does Whey Protein Become Contaminated with Mercury?
Wherever there is volcanic activity, geologic deposits of mercury tend to be proximal. Mercury is also a common emission element found in various manufacturing industries. Ultimately, emissions settle, and any toxins contained in the emissions will settle on nearby lands, farms, or water bodies.
Mercury poisoning became a popular conversation topic when relatively high levels were becoming associated with our fish, Tilefish, Shark, Swordfish, King Mackerel, Marlin, Orange Roughy, bluefin tuna, and Bigeye Tuna. When mercury finds a water source, the bacteria (endemic to the water) will react with the mercury and form the toxin methylmercury.
This form of mercury in wild salmon raises health concerns. As the methylmercury contaminated water passes through the gills of the salmon, this toxin will accumulate in the flesh of the salmon.
Whey Protein Isolate Naturally Contains Less Mercury than Whey Protein Concentrate
When mercury enters a dairy cows' body, a portion of it excretes naturally through the milk glands. Mercury contaminates in milk naturally gravitates towards two protein fractions, casein micelles (high molecular weight) and Beta-Lactoglobulin β-Lg (low molecular weight).
Mercury will bind with the heavier molecular weighted fraction first as a priority then will bind any remaining contaminants to Beta-Lactoglobulin β-Lg (lower molecular weight).
The main attraction of mercury towards the heavier fraction naturally reduces the mercury contaminates bound to the whey protein fractions. Remember, Casein accounts for just over 80% of milk proteins by volume, while Whey protein accounts for the remaining percentage.
When whey protein concentrate is continuously run through a cold-processed micro-filtration system (125-micron mesh) to further process the whey into what we call whey protein isolate, the protein concentrations compared to total volume continues to grow.
At the same time, more and more of the fats & sugars (lactose) decrease in volume. Any residual Casein Micelles remaining from the first time through the micro-filtration mesh are now likely removed during this additional circulation. As the residual Casein is discarded, with it, the bound mercury contaminates as well.
What are the Health Impacts of Contaminated Whey?
Mercury - Inorganic mercury exposure from environmental pollution is associated with various psychological changes, tremours, and terrifying congenital malformation and/or miscarriage—methylmercury damages brain cells and the CNS (Central Nervous System).
Chronic exposure, paired with the accumulation of mercury compounds, may result in a variety of ways. The adverse reactions potentially include kidney damage, irritability, weakness & fatigue, memory loss, changes in the senses (hearing, vision, and taste), nausea, vomiting, with the most severe cases resulting in death.
Reduce Mercury Exposure by Choice
- Be on the lookout for any dietary supplements that have mercury warnings or warnings such as "These statements have not been FDA approved."
- For products without warnings, such as Whey Protein, ask the manufacture where you can find the heavy-metal testing analytics.
Does Whey Protein Contain Cadmium?
Cadmium is a simple chemical element. Cadmium, like mercury, is not used by the body and is considered toxic. Cadmium is bio-persistent, meaning, once cadmium infiltrates organic tissue, residues can remain for many years (over decades for humans).
How does Cadmium Contaminate Whey Protein?
Although cadmium is a natural metallic element, there is no place for it in whey protein with concentrations > .005 MCG. These concentrations are relatively common in leafy greens, including Mixed Greens, Spinach, Lettuce, Kale, Chard, & Cilantro.
When reviewing heavy-metal test results as far as cadmium is concerned, we recommend staying away from brands representing concentrations > .05 MCG as this indicates that anthropogenic activities have compromised the source of origin. It is vital to understand testing tolerances and sensitivities; many supplement brands test to a threshold to satisfy, for example, proposition 65 and thus reflected in their heavy metal analytics disclosure.
Cadmium exists naturally within the soil at low levels. Cadmium does, however, have much stronger presents in fossil fuels. As an impurity, cadmium resides within phosphate deposits. Phosphate is a popular and essential component of industrially produced fertilizers, which is how it ends up in dairy products.
When it comes to farms in geographic locations that rely on seasonal fertilizers for soil rebalancing, increased levels of cadmium are prevalent.
When speaking to CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), cadmium doesn't take long to accumulate in the soil from runoff and cleaning waters. The plants then absorb cadmium.
The accumulation of cadmium takes place in the roots, stems, leaves, and, ultimately, in the fruit yield. Once this revolution takes place, it takes a very long time for the earth to rebalance over time. Naturally, the cadmium will leach from the soil and end up in local groundwater and irrigation supplies; from there, the bounds of its contamination are limitless.
How Cadmium in Whey Protein Impacts my Health?
If whey protein contains high concentrations of cadmium, the critical damage occurs to the kidneys and thus the blood filtration system. When the kidneys begin to fail due to heavy metal poisoning, protein begins to pass through to the urine. The severity of the damage, like most poisons, depends on exposure time and magnitude of the concentration.
When speaking to heavy metals in whey protein, the mechanism of exposure and the health concern is more related to ingesting a low-dose routinely as part of a one shake per day routine versus a high-dose one-time exposure. Because cadmium is bio-persistent and has a half-life extending decades in the human body, levels throughout the typical person continues to increase throughout their lives.
There are different ways by which people become exposed to cadmium:
For the non-smoking population, inhalation of cadmium due to burning plant life or industrial vapors accounts for < 10% of the cadmium entering the body. Ingestion of cadmium via water and food makes up the remaining 90%.
Cadmium in food primarily stems from the uptake of cadmium from natural and contaminated soils depending on many factors, including pH, salinity, and crop species. Cadmium is not, however, limited to vegetables; its found in grains, seeds, cereals, mushrooms, and many animal-based foods such as milk and organ meats. In CAFOs where animals are eating grain-rich concentrates and living in confined spaces littered with waste, the milk produced and thus the whey will contain higher concentrations of whey.
Considerations To Reduce Exposure To Cadmium & Cadmium Compounds
- Not being exposed to smoke in general, tobacco smoke is not exempt.
- Exercising by industrial parks or construction sites may expose your lungs to the vapor or dust resulting from welding or soldering operations.
- As far as diet, limiting consumption of shellfish along with organ meats such as liver or kidneys will reduce exposure.
- Maintaining healthy levels of calcium and iron can also inhibit cadmium absorption that enters your body.
Arsenic In Whey Protein
Despite its notoriety as a deadly poison, studies of arsenic suggest it is an essential element for some animals (possibly humans) as a trace element. Arsenic naturally occurs in rocks, soil, air, and water in tiny quantities.
Although naturally occurring arsenic found in the outer crust of the earth is geographically dependent, human activity, unfortunately, is responsible for the majority of global arsenic hot spots. Toxic concentrations of arsenic are often a direct result of human intervention in terms of both chemical treatments and, in particular, pesticide use.
Arsenic can easily compromise crops due to its ability to dissolve and flow in water readily. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 200 million people worldwide have experienced exposure to water that contains potentially toxic concentrations of arsenic.
In almost all cases, arsenic is a bad thing; however, there is ongoing cancer research utilizing arsenic's unique ability to impair a cell's ability to generate energy and communicate with other cells. Harnessing and controlling this deadly characteristic of arsenic may one day lead to a wide-scale Arsenic-based cancer solution.
How Does Arsenic End Up In My Whey Protein?
Most arsenic gets into the body through the stomach via the consumption of food and water. Arsenic contaminated water is not limited to underdeveloped countries but rather a more significant issue in most first-world countries.
It is not uncommon for rice, fish, and or dairy products within countries such as India, China, and the United States to contain high levels of arsenic. Due to arsenic getting around using water as a conduit, once a deposit of arsenic hits the ground, it spreads rapidly. Like the other heavy metals, the majority of health issues where arsenic is the culprit stem from contamination via food or water. Only in rare cases does arsenic cause issues when inhaled via air (dust) or due to skin exposure.
To put this into perspective, lactating dairy cows responsible for the majority of whey products on today's shelves (except for goat whey). A lactating dairy cow consumes an average of 14 1/2 gallons of water per day. The environment farmers are responsible for sustaining for their animals plays a more critical role than most health enthusiasts can reasonably comprehend. It's a bit humbling as a nutrition coach when the nutrition regime prescribed to your clients meant to elevate health is also responsible for slowly damaging their cells at the molecular level.
With arsenic being so mobile in water supplies, if the animal's water source is contaminated, it doesn't take long before the animal's hair, feces, saliva, urine, and milk becomes integrated with dangerously high arsenic levels.
Farms located over tectonic movement or near active volcanoes will be much more susceptible to high natural concentrations of arsenic. In general, volcanoes emit over three thousand tons of arsenic into the atmosphere per year.
How Can Arsenic In My Whey Protein Impact My Health?
Exposure to inorganic arsenic compounds can cause cancer of the lung, bladder, prostate, kidneys, and skin. Unlike cadmium, arsenic is not bio-persistent and easily excreted through the urine after passing through the body.
How Can I Reduce My Exposure To Inorganic Arsenic?
- Smoking, in general, is not healthy and does contain low concentrations of arsenic.
- Avoid the emission of any burning pre-treated lumber as well as contact to wooden structures that look unsealed and or fabricated before 2005.
- Has your water tested for arsenic contamination? Water the originates from a public supplier rather than a local well is most likely tested regularly for arsenic & lead.
Lead In Whey Protein
Lead in the environment arises from both natural and anthropogenic (human intervention) sources. Exposure typically occurs through the same channels as the other heavy metals mentioned in this article; Lead can infiltrate the body through water, food, emissions, soil, and old paint.
Unfortunately, lead contamination tends to have a more considerable impact and attraction to harming the younger population when compared to the other heavy metals.
Although drinking water is tightly regulated in the United States and lead pipes deemed dangerous by the 1920s, it was until 1986 when the laws made lead pipes an installation of the past. Of course, this means, lead-pipes and contaminated water supplies are prevalent. The testament to this fact is the recent lead contamination disaster the plagued Flint, Michigan. When the contaminant medium is water, the recipients of the exposure in genial don't stand a chance.
While new-installations of lead piping are no longer taking place to move water across the United States, lead pipes, unfortunately, are still widely known to be in abundance within the current water system. Primarily due to the extreme complexities and costs associated with identifying and removing the existing infrastructure, it will be decades before the complete eradication of lead in our water (and lead paint) becomes a reality.
How Can Lead In My Whey Protein Impact My Health?
There are several well-studied health risks of lead exposure, even in minuscule concentrations. Children, younger kids, pregnant women, and their developing babies are especially vulnerable to these risks. The documented health impacts for those most susceptible include stunted growth, reduced IQ, behavioral and learning issues, anemia, and hearing problems.
In general, human exposure to toxic levels of lead contamination can result in a wide array of biological effects depending on the magnitude and length of time exposed. Problems occurring from lead poisoning include but are not limited to the synthesis of hemoglobin, developments on the gastrointestinal tract & kidneys, issues with joints, reproductive organs, and lastly, chronic and acute repercussions to the nervous system.
Considerations To Reduce My Exposure To Lead & Lead Compounds
- Calcium, vitamin C, and iron may help reduce the amount of lead that your body absorbs. Thus, enjoying a well-balanced diet with adequate minerals can be beneficial.
- Look for heavy-metal testing analytics on all of your supplements and educate yourself on acceptable levels. Acceptable levels of a product fully disclosed can be found here: Proposition 65 Heavy Metal Daily Limits.
- Water temperature is a well-known factor that impacts the rate at which lead leaches into it. Utilizing cold tap water and then heating using your conventional methods may help. Also, letting your hot water run for 20 seconds before capturing it will reduce the quantity of hot water sitting static against any plumbing and plumbing hardware (lead surfaces).
- Boiling albeit solves most issues with water does NOT serve benefits in reducing lead contaminants in the water.
What Is Proposition 65 -
Proposition 65 is essentially a "right to know" law that puts in place a series of additional measures and tighter thresholds above and beyond the regulations set by the federal government. The reach of Prop 65 extends from drinking water to the chemical compositions of just about everything.
California, in our eyes, is leading the fight for higher standards in the sourcing, manufacturing, and labeling of food and drink. Proposition 65 is significant legislation for the whey protein industry and forces full disclosure (for those abiding by the law).
In today's dietary supplement industry, very few whey protein brands source from grassfed farms, and fewer perform accredited 3rd party testing; However, the overwhelming majority make these claims, and in big, bold font. In general, we think Proposition 65 is a great start and adds a fair amount of enforcement potential to slow brands making false claims. Even more impactful, Proposition 65 is helping educate the public in making better choices, ultimately curving the demand for poorly sourced nutrition products.