A human health risk assessment of heavy metal ingestion among consumers of protein powder supplements

Toxicol Rep. 2020 Aug 21;7:1255-1262. doi: 10.1016/j.toxrep.2020.08.001. eCollection 2020.


Concerns have recently been raised about the presence of heavy metals in protein powder supplements following a Consumer Reports analysis of 15 protein powder products. The Consumer Reports study found that the average amounts of heavy metals in three servings of protein powder per day exceeded the maximum limits in dietary supplements proposed by U.S. Pharmacopeia. In a follow up to the Consumer Reports analysis, another study reported that 40 % of the 133 protein powder products they tested had elevated levels of heavy metals. The objective of this analysis was to determine whether the heavy metal concentrations reported in protein powder supplements posed any human health risks, based on the reported concentrations of arsenic (As), cadmium (Cd), mercury (Hg), and lead (Pb) in the protein powder. The US EPA reference doses (RfD) for As and Cd, and the EPA screening level for Hg were based on the most sensitive health endpoint which were used to calculate hazard quotients (HQs) for each metal. The 'worse-case scenario' assessment for each protein powder product was expressed as a cumulative hazard index (HI), which is the sum of HQs from each heavy metal. Additionally, we utilized the U.S. EPA's Adult Lead Methodology (ALM) model to estimate adult blood lead levels (BLLs), which were compared to the CDC BLL guidance value of 5 μg/dL. All models assumed one or three servings of protein powder per day. Our results indicate that the exposure concentrations of the studied metals do not pose an increased health risk (Hazard Index < 1). We noted that the protein powder HI was mainly driven by the As or Cd content in each product. Interestingly, the highest HI levels (which approached 1) were found in 'mass gain' type protein powder supplements, whereas the lowest calculated HI levels were in whey protein powders. Moreover, background Pb exposure was the primary contributor to estimated BLLs in adults, and all modeled BLLs were below 5 μg/dL. Overall, our results suggest that the typical intake of dietary supplements would not result in adverse health effects due to heavy metals.

Keywords: Heavy metals; Protein powder; Risk assessment; Supplements.