The Danger of Protein Powder?!?

Filed under: General Health, Nutrition

A reader of mine sent me this video from CBS about the dangers of protein powders. It only takes about 4 minutes, so give it a quick watch, I’ll wait.

The video is based on a report on protein powders and ready-made protein drinks from Consumer Reports, which showed some protein powders failing quality testing due to excessive amounts of arsenic, cadmium and lead. You can take a look at that report yourself right here.

After looking over that report you can see there are a few problems with it. It is based on people consuming 3 servings of the protein product daily. Not necessarily 3 scoops, but 3 servings, which is a lot. In reality many of these products make their serving sizes larger to seem like they provide greater amounts of protein, when in reality on a per gram of product basis, they are all pretty similar.

This can be misleading when looking over this report, as 3 servings should be anywhere from 60-75 grams of protein. You can see that many of these products far exceed that. GNC Wheybolic, which is a very popular product with high school athletes, contains 180 grams of protein in 3 servings! This is because 3 scoops equals 1 serving, which is ridiculous. Kids get it because they think it provides them with so much more protein, when in reality it is simply a larger serving size.

All three products that failed the testing were larger than normal serving sizes, providing 96, 96, and 126 grams of protein in “3″ servings. To me this slightly confounds the data, as the products should have been compared on an equal gram to gram basis. I understand that doesn’t necessarily reflect real life consumption as people consume the protein on suggested serving sizes not x number of grams, but I hope that people are not really consuming 9 scoops of GNC Wheybolic to meet their protein needs.

In reality people should look to real whole food to supply the vast majority of their protein needs, with protein powders like whey helping to round out intake. Whey protein is actually chock full of health benefits, and is actually the subject of my next article.

Whey is loaded with BCAAs, glutamic acid, cysteine, immunoglobulins, lactoferrin, alpha-lactalbumin and glycomacropeptides which all contribute significantly to our immune system, so it is not some dangerous and deadly food when consumed from quality sources in reasonable amounts.

Now I think it is important that we test these products to ensure they do not contain high amounts of heavy metals. I would also discourage people from consuming more than 40-50 grams of protein from powders anyway, whether from a high quality whey or not. While whey does contain many immuno-supportive properties, other protein sources contain valuable vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and other nutrients that are also necessary for optimal health.

The video goes on to list some of the “dangers” of excess protein – dehydration, digestive problems, increased risk of osteoporosis, complications for people with kidney problems. Lets look at these one at a time shall we?

First off, what is excess protein anyhow? This is not clearly defined in any way in the video. It is just some abstract statement with no qualification, aimed at making people believe that protein powder is deadly.

Dehydration due to protein consumption – While there is some limited research on this topic, it is scant at best. This idea is mainly from one study on military personnel on a water-restricted diet, clearly this does not apply to normal people and normal fluid intake. This is also related to the unsubstantiated but often-reported belief that excess protein damages the kidneys. Neither one has any actual science behind it, so why does it persist in the media?

On a side note, athletes and exercise enthusiasts have been consuming high protein diets for decades without any noted increases in kidney problems or dehydration. While only empirical, it still seems reasonable that if high protein diets truly caused dehydration and kidney problems, it would have been actually reported by now. Maybe this is because the kidneys are an incredibly adaptive piece of machinery, that attenuate change in protein intake. Hmm, what a concept.

Digestive problems? – I could not find anything on this in the literature, and seems to be based solely on ancedotal evidence to me. Does all protein cause digestive problems, or merely protein “drinks”, the video does not specify. In none of the studies, reviews or position statements I looked at is this even addressed, so it seems to be so small a concern to not even be considered in a review of high protein consumption and potential health effects. If a particular protein causes you GI distress, choose another protein source, it is that simple.

Increased risk of osteoporosis – This statement is based on early research that showed that people with high protein intakes had higher urine acidity that also appeared to linked to the leaching of calcium from bones to buffer this increased acidity. These studies were of poor design, with tiny sample sizes and using pure forms of isolated protein. This is not realistic as even conventional protein powders, especially whey, have calcium and other bone-supporting nutrients still intact. It has been more recently shown with higher quality research that the phosphate content of high protein foods negates this potential issue. The main reason why people on higher-protein diets excrete more calcium is because they consume more calcium, not because their bones are weakening. In the elderly, where risk of osteoporosis is a large issue, it is recommended that they exceed the RDA for protein intake of 0.8g/kg up to 1.0-1.2g/kg to maintain bone mass. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. It has also been shown that when calcium and vitamin D intake are adequate, protein intake is actually beneficial to bone health. Interaction of dietary calcium and protein in bone health in humans.

Complications for people with kidney problems - OK my first beef with this point is that the writing on the screen differed in a small but significant way from the reading of the reporter, as she stated that excess protein can “for some people cause kidney problems.” That vague statement makes it sound as if just about anybody could develop kidney problems from excessive protein intake. When in reality, unless you have a pre-existing kidney condition, this is not the case. Here is a free pubmed article that looks at the state of the literature on the topic, and declares this to be a non-issue. Dietary protein intake and renal function. I will say it again, according to the numerous studies on the topic, unless you have a pre-existing kidney condition you are at no risk of kidney problems from increased protein consumption. Period.

More reading on the topic:

Dietary protein safety and resistance exercise: what do we really know?

The Protein Book: A Complete Guide for the Athlete and Coach.

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Posted on July 23rd, 2010 by Brian St. Pierre


  1. Ian Says:

    I’ve encountered anti-dairy crusaders who claim that dairy inherently causes constipation and other GI problems. Not that pasteurised dairy is less nutritious than raw, or that some dairy products are better for you than others, or any other such qualifcation–their claim is that all dairy products in any form from any source are always-already Evil. These people tend also to be rapidly anti-meat, anti-wheat, and pro-soy advocates who think they have a monopoly on the idea of healthy eating. They tend to be pretty vocal (read: pushy) about their perspective on nutrition (note that they are not athletes).

    So they may be (one) source of the claim that whey protein causes digestive problems.

  2. Sharif Jomaa Says:

    Thanks Brian, this was a good article and helps clear the confusion surrounding protein and ‘higher’ levels of consumption. It’s a shame that people still believe the idea that too much protein is bad for you, but then again lots of 80′s nutritional garbage is still floating around as mainstream.

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  5. Reuben Pleas Says:

    Hey guys, I’ve been using supplements for about a year and a half now, and as the months go by my knowledge increases. I’ve been using Myofusion for about four months.n To all of the newbies that go into a GNC and listen to the people that know nothing about their job, I’ll make it simple. Whey protein is a protein that gets into your muscles fast, usually used as a pre and post workout. Casein protein is a slow acting protein which is used mostly for those times you will not be eating for a while, usually before bed. Egg protein is the best form of protein that is found so far, so whenever you find a protein that has it in their ingredients take it into consideration. This protein contains about 25G of protein. Have some crackers that contain about 7 or 8 grams of protein, and you’re solid. Don’t waste your money on very expensive proteins with like 50 to 65 grams, because the majority of that stuff is useless your body can only take it about 30-35 grams of protein at once so the rest of that crap is going to be converted to fat or either pooped out. Stick to myofusion, its a good, cheap, quality protein that has everything that you need to acieve your goals, with not too much, not too little.

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