Protein Supplements - The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Most athletes and exercise enthusiasts are aware that post-training nutrition is an important factor for improving lean muscle and recovery.  You probably guzzle down a protein shake before or after training because you know ‘its good for me’ and leave it at that.  Although this is a good first step in the right direction, there is more to the protein story. 

There a various types of protein sources from which these protein shakes are derived; some superior for supporting training and some better between bouts of exercise. More importantly, many commercial protein brands have ‘stuff’ in them that can negatively affect your gut, your immunity and your overall health.  Surprisingly, heavy metals, artificial sweeteners, and fillers can often be found in certain protein formulas. Let’s take a closer look.

The Manufacture & Processing of Supplements

The most significant difference among different protein supplement is the facilities in which they are manufactured.  Many commercial brands do not come from laboratories that have stringent manufacturing practices and certifications ensuring the quality and purity of the protein supplement.  High quality supplement brands have superior laboratory testing procedures and accreditations, they are accountable to independent third party testing of ingredients, and eliminate impurities and heavy metals. 

Potential Contaminants in Supplemental Protein

Many commercial manufacturers use inexpensive whey proteins – in order to improve their bottom line – that can be laden with nasty chemicals such as cadmium, lead and mercury.  A recent report by Consumer Reports Magazine in 2010 showed most all ‘commercial’ brands of whey protein had elevated levels of many or all of the above toxins.(1) Heavy metals inhibit mitochondrial function in the cell, resulting in muscular weakness, fatigue, and poor recovery. Heavy metals are very difficult to get out of the body, so reducing your body’s burden is very important. This is a primary reason why it’s critical to purchase a quality whey protein from reputable brands.

Added Sugars & HFCS

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is another ingredient that can be found in protein supplements to improve the taste and make it more palatable.  You might think that sugar is fine to consume post-exercise but unfortunately the fuel your cells require is glucose, not fructose, which must travel to the liver to be converted to glucose. Excessive intake places a heavy burden on liver function.  HFCS is a common sugar used in popular sports drinks and protein powders to provide simple sugars to working muscles.  Unfortunately, the over-emphasis of fructose in these products can lead to gas, bloating and cramping, as it slows the rate of gastric emptying (how quickly the solution leaves your stomach).

Fructose consumed in large quantities also exerts a pro-inflammatory effect on the liver; contributing to insulin resistance and disrupting intestinal microflora.2  In 2012, a study from the Institute of Food in Switzerland showed a connection between high fructose intake, altered gut bacteria, and significant weight gain.(2) This can be extremely detrimental to athletic performance and overall health.

Added Artificial Sweeteners

More sweeteners added to protein supplements include acesulfame potassium and sucralose.  These artificial sweeteners are about 200-600x sweeter than sugar respectively, making them sought after sweeteners to mask the taste of some of the more bitter amino acids, namely the important muscle building branch-chain amino acids.  While these sweeteners do not significantly impact blood sugar levels and are low in calories, they do significantly increase insulin levels.(3) This is especially important for people trying to lose weight. 

In order to reduce body fat, insulin levels must be kept in balance.  Elevated insulin levels are bad news because it directly inhibits your ability to breakdown body fat.  Sucralose is a sugar alcohol, a synthetic chemically modified version of a sugar designed to taste a sweet with little caloric impact on the body.  The synthetic sucralose compound is made in a laboratory when sugar is treated with trityl chloride, acetic anhydride, hydrogen chlorine, thionyl chloride and methanol in the presence of dimethylformamide, 4-methylmorpholine, toluene, methyl isobutyl ketone, acetic acid, benzyltriethylammonium chloride and sodium methoxide. Doesn’t sound very natural, does it?

As well, sucralose doesn’t impact your total carbohydrate intake because it is very poorly absorbed, which is why consuming high doses can lead to loose stool, diarrhea, and even anal leakage (that doesn’t sound natural).  Other side effects of sucralose consumption include headaches, numbness, muscle aches, and stomach pain. In 2010, a study suggested further testing on these sweeteners is required to ensure they are not detrimental to overall health.(4) In 2012, a study showed that the breakdown of sucralose into the water table negatively impacts the motor function of crustaceans, suggesting a toxic or over-stimulatory activation which researchers suggested ‘should be considered a warning’ against exposure.(5)

Types of Supplemental Protein

So what type of protein should you be consuming? The answer is high quality, pure proteins that are free of toxins and artificial sweeteners.  In general, grass-fed whey protein is best for meal replacements (breakfast shakes) or snacks throughout the day and whey protein isolate is best used around bouts of exercise (if you tolerate them well on the digestive side). Casein is commonly used as a supplement, however, I prefer my clients get this from natural sources like milk or cottage cheese... it's cheaper and more bioavailable. If you are intolerant to whey, that's when you should think about switching over to a vegetable based protein to avoid gas, bloating, and cramping. 

Take your sports nutrition, recovery, and overall health to the next level.  Stop compromising your progress and health with sub-standard protein blends.  You wouldn’t eat salmon laden with toxic metals, so why do the same with your protein?  Choose clean, pure, high quality protein sources and feel the difference today!

Dr Marc Bubbs ND, CISSN, CSCS

Want to learn more? Listen to world protein expert Dr. Tyler Churchward-Venne on Episode #7 of the Dr. Bubbs Performance Podcast...


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References –

1)     Consumer Reports Magazine. July 2010.

2)     Payne AN et al. Gut microbial adaptation to dietary consumption of fructose, artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols: implications for host-microbe interactions contributing to obesity.  Obes Rev. 2012 Sep;13(9):799-809.

3)     Malaisse WJ et al. Effects of artificial sweeteners on insulin release and cationic fluxes in rat pancreatic islets. Cell Signal. 1998 Nov;10(10):727-33.

4)     Karstadt ML. Inadequate Toxicity tests of food additive. 2010 Jan-mar;(16(1):89-96

5)     Wiklund AK, et al. 2012 Jan;86(1):50-5 doi: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2011.08.049.