Are Protein Shakes Safe?

“Ready to Drink” (RTD) protein supplements have come under attack in an article featured in Consumer Reports July 2010 issue. The claims are based upon a study conducted by Consumer Reports that found that these supplements expose consumers to dangerous amounts of such harmful heavy metals as arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury. However, Consumer Reports is not the only source of potentially unnerving information on RTD protein supplements.

The web is alight with an abundance of “healthy living” sites proclaiming the dangers of a protein-heavy diet. While Americans look to fitness and body building magazines for nutritional tips, these sites claim, they are forgetting that those tips are there to back up the advertisements – advertisements for products like RTD protein supplements. The harm that too much protein can do your body, it is then claimed, can range from weight gain and premature aging to osteoarthritis, calcium deposits and kidney stones.

With products like Muscle Milk leading the charge of RTD protein supplements on to convenience store shelves, how much should you worry before picking up some extra protein? The answer is not very much. Cytosport, the company that makes Muscle Milk, and Optimum Nutrition, another RTD protein supplement manufacturer, unsurprisingly released an immediate response to the charges laid out by Consumer Reports, and, while their aims are obvious, their arguments present a thorough, logical retaliation backed up by figures taken from the very same study conducted by Consumer Reports.

First things first, RTD protein supplements are marketed mainly towards fitness buffs interested in putting on weight in the form of muscle mass. However, the trace amounts of harmful heavy metals found in the Consumer Reports study were based on the recommended daily intake for someone weighing in at only 50kg, or 110lbs. The average weightlifter, as one might imagine, weighs quite a bit more than that. According the response posted on Cytosport’s website, the average adult male weighs 195lbs. In addition, these heavy metals are not unique to protein drinks, and are found in such foods as spinach, potatoes , watermelons, raisins and even apples. As with any of these foods, protein drinks taken in moderation will not expose most consumers to any more harmful heavy metals than they would in their average diet.

As for taking in so much protein as to make it unhealthy, or even downright dangerous, the answers, once again, returns to moderation. The USDA recommends that the average adult male take in 56g of protein per day. However, the calculator provided on Cyosport’s website suggests that a moderately active adult male take in 117g of protein per day, almost twice the recommended amount. While the USDA’s recommendations provide a good reference point for the “average” adult male, protein supplements have been traditionally consumed by adults who exceed the “average” label. For example, most weightlifting and bodybuilding nutritional guides, including those without ties to the RTD protein supplement industry, recommend higher amounts for people who work out regularly with the intent of building muscle mass. Muscle damage, the sort that occurs during resistance training, requires additional protein to rebuild itself. According to About.com’s exercise expert, the amount of protein required by a person who regularly exercises and lifts weights is 1.5g per kg of body weight, meaning that a 154lb adult male would require 105g of protein per day, making Cytosport’s calculation look more helpful than harmful.

Optimum nutrition (ON) posted a response to the report discuss how every day natural foods have near three times the amounts of metal lead than what the published report’s finding on ON products.

To sum it all up, protein is like any other part of your diet. You should moderate your protein intake, but also adjust it to fit your lifestyle. While the average adult American couch potato should certainly not rely on Cytosport’s calculator to determine their recommended daily protein intake, the average adult American bodybuilder looking to build muscle needs well above 50g per day to achieve their desired physique. Just as everyone knows that abundant overindulging something like shrimp can lead to mercury poisoning, more should be aware that overindulging in RTD protein shakes can lead to kidney stones. As far as the dangers of harmful heavy metals in those shakes goes, however, Consumer Reports may as well be inspiring us to fear spinach.

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