I’ll admit, I did about as much research into this topic as it takes to do one of those little scratcher lottery tickets at the local gas station. A couple swipes back and forth and you know you’ve lost the game. The reason I didn’t have to do much research though, was that the results were obvious as soon as I started scratching the surface. Based on what I found, protein products on your grocery store shelves are disappointing at best and dangerous at worst. Read on to understand what exactly is going into your OTC supplements.
Protein bars and shakes are a go to for a lot of people nowadays. We keep them at work, in our cars, backpacks, gym bags, purses, and in the pantry for easy go to snacks for both kids and adults. Ideally, they’re jam packed with vitamins, nutrients, and a good amount of protein to keep us fueled for a few hours while we are running during the day. However, many come with added sugar, fat, excess calories, and some even come laced with heavy metals like arsenic, lead and cadmium.
This actually came to light over 10 years ago when Consumer Reports did an expose on Muscle Milk, EAS Myoplex, GNC, and several other well-known protein supplements. They found dangerous levels of contaminants including arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury in multiple supplements that could easily exceed maximum limits with normal daily intake of these supplements. (https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/2012/04/protein-drinks/index.htm). Unfortunately, the FDA does not require that dietary supplements like protein shakes and bars be tested to ensure they are safe and free of contaminants. Many of these supplements do not list where they source their ingredients on their websites and, to cut costs, will source from questionable protein supply sources, such as many Chinese manufacturers. In looking briefly into Muscle Milk, I found they were owned by Cytosport Inc. (which also makes Monster Milk and Cytomax brand), which was acquired by Hormel Foods Corporation which was then acquired by PepsiCo Inc. Having trouble keeping up? Yeah, me too…. I couldn’t find on any of their sites where they source their protein from and considering the results from the Consumer Reports study (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7509468/) I’m very concerned the right hand may not know what the left hand is doing. Plus, I didn’t see any third-party certification of safety and purity such as GMP or NSF anywhere on their websites.
Since the Consumer Reports article came out in 2012, there are some new tricks being played on the public by protein companies. In 2015, a lawsuit was filed against several major companies alleging a practice called “protein spiking” where cheaper non-protein substances are added to fool lab tests into indicating higher protein levels in protein products ( https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexmorrell/2015/03/12/lawsuits-say-protein-powders-lack-protein-ripping-off-athletes/?sh=594eebb07729). CVS Health, Giant Sport, Body Fortress and MusclePharm are some of the companies named in the lawsuits. In one test, a supplement containing “High Quality Protein” contained less than half of the protein it advertised. Worse yet, the newest concern is for hydrolyzed leather protein (from animal skin scraps) being added to supplements from China and Hong Kong to increase the protein content. The scraps often contain metallic contaminants that are unfit for human consumption.
After being thoroughly horrified by the protein powder industry, I decided to check out protein bars. While I didn’t find multiple lawsuits on the first page of Google, what I did find was, in many ways, just as bad. I haven’t purchased an over-the-counter protein bar in quite a long time so I decided to see if the protein bar selection had improved in the last 10 years. I went to Natural Grocers on 24th Street and picked up every protein bar they had to do a side-by-side comparison.
Despite being labeled words like “healthy”, “natural”, “low glycemic”, and “the ultimate energy bar”, these bars were no better than most candy bars. I included a chart below of the bars I picked up, but specifically I wanted to call out Clif Protein Builders bar. They are labeled as “low glycemic” with 17 grams of sugar and ALL of it is added sugar…for shame Clif Builders, for shame! The American Heart Association recommends a maximum of 24 grams of sugar (6 tsp) per day for women. One of those bars and a teaspoon of honey and you’ve hit your maximum quantity of sugar consumption for the day! Just for fun, I looked at a couple of my favorite candy bars and Kit Kat has 220 calories with 21 grams of sugar. A snickers bar is 250 calories and 25 grams of added sugar. If you’re going to eat candy, it might as well be real candy.
When I compared any of the grocery store bars to one of the DR bars, there was no comparison. Calorically, each of the grocery store bars were significantly higher and often contained much more added sugar. The only one that even came close was the Think High Protein Bar in Cookies and Cream Flavor. Though topping out at 100 calories more than DR Vanilla Choco Protein and tasting like someone put chalk in a blender with a little glue, I’m not sure “close” is the right word.
They say “you get what you pay for” and everything I am seeing in the protein supplement industry tells me that is true. Over the counter/grocery store protein bars and shakes are often a little cheaper, but the safety of the product and the nutritional value is questionable at best. If you’re going to use supplements to help navigate our crazy busy lives, I would highly recommend purchasing medical grade nutrition supplements from reputable companies like Celebrate, Robard, and Bariatrix. Sure the packaging isn’t as flashy and you won’t see them on TV, but they often taste better, are lower calorie, have higher quality protein and are third party vetted, so you know they are safe.