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Maker of protein drinks responds to CU's investigation

Consumer Reports News: June 04, 2010 12:08 PM

Consumer Report’s investigation revealing that some protein drinks may pose health risks over time when consumed frequently has stirred reaction from the industry. Our reporting, including tests at an outside lab of 15 protein drinks, found that all of the products tested had at least one sample containing arsenic, cadmium, lead or mercury—contaminants that can have toxic effects on the body.

For most drinks we tested, levels of detected contaminants were in the low to moderate range when detectable. But levels in three of the products were of particular concern because consumers who had three servings daily could be exposed to arsenic, cadmium or lead at levels exceeding the maximum limits proposed by the U.S. Pharmacopeia. USP is the federally recognized authority that sets voluntary standards for health products. Two of those products were Muscle Milk Chocolate and Muscle Milk Vanilla Crème powders.

Greg Pickett, founder of CytoSport, Inc., which produces the Muscle Milk products, issued a statement on his company’s website defending the quality of the company’s product. He said that the products are tested by “independent third party agencies” such as NSF International, a non-profit, non-governmental organization that evaluates and certifies products for safety. It developed the American National Standard for Nutritional/Dietary Supplements, known as NSF/ANSI 173. “The samples of Muscle Milk Chocolate and Muscle Milk Vanilla Crème (the two CytoSport products referenced in the article) were analyzed by NSF International and found to pass NSF/ANSI 173 standards for contaminants based on NSF’s validated test methods,” Pickett’s statement says.

As Consumer Reports’ testing indicated, there can be considerable variations in levels of heavy metals from sample to sample of the same product, so it would not be surprising if levels NSF tests detected in any given sample differ from those we found. Moreover, the maximum acceptable limits for heavy metals that NSF uses for its testing differ from the standards relied upon by Consumer Reports, which used limits proposed by the U.S. Pharmacopeia.

The NSF limit of 10 micrograms per day for arsenic (inorganic) is more stringent than the USP’s proposed limit of 15 micrograms per day, but for cadmium, lead and mercury, the NSF limits actually are more lenient. For example, the NSF standard would allow 20 micrograms per day of lead, which is double the USP’s proposed limit of 10 micrograms per day.

We used the proposed USP standards as a benchmark that most closely reflects the current state of scientific knowledge regarding acceptable exposure levels for heavy metals in dietary supplements. The Food and Drug Administration has not established heavy metal limits for protein supplements and there are only a few established for foods.  California legislation known as Proposition 65 has established daily safe harbor limits for toxic substances the state says pose even a low cancer or reproductive risk. And eight of the 15 protein supplements exceeded those limits for lead in just one serving.

“Safe exposure levels” to heavy metals continue to be lowered over time as scientific understanding improves.  The American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that there is no “safe level” of lead for children. In fact, acceptable lead exposure limits have been repeatedly lowered over the years and current scientific understanding suggests that neurological damage can occur at blood lead levels much lower than previously believed.

In the case of cadmium, published research involving women in Sweden suggests that kidney damage can occur at cadmium blood levels much lower than previously believed to cause harm. And the risk assessments for many of these heavy metals are limited and have either not been updated in several years or do not include the full range of potential adverse health effects. A recent review of cadmium, for example, highlights the need for acceptable exposure limits to be re-evaluated given emerging evidence about harm done from chronic, low-level exposures.

We think there should be better government oversight and better quality controls in place to minimize the levels of heavy metal contamination in this product sector. We also think that consumers should take all steps possible to mitigate their heavy metal exposure. That includes minimizing exposure to foods that tend to have significant levels of cadmium and other heavy metals due to environmental contamination and the use of certain types of cadmium-containing fertilizers. An FDA report lists heavy metal content for a variety of foods and indicates that foods such as milk, yogurt, eggs, poultry and red meats are generally good protein sources that seem to contain little or no cadmium, lead, arsenic or mercury.
—Andrea Rock and Urvashi Rangan

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