I am a firm believer in the fact that you should always be able to trust in what you consume. By that, I mean you should be able to look at the ingredients listed on a product and be certain that there is nothing hidden or lurking in the background that the manufacturer doesn’t want to tell you about.
Supplements have fewer regulatory conditions than food, which means that you really need to be able to trust a brand’s integrity and ethical responsibility to their customers when using those products. Unfortunately this isn’t always the case, and many supplements (be they protein powders, multinutrients or specific vitamins) have been found to contain heavy metals.
What are heavy metals?
Heavy metals are naturally found in the earth and are defined as being any metallic chemical element which have a relatively high density and are toxic, even at low concentrations (Lenntech, 2019). Some heavy metals, such as selenium and copper, play key roles in the human body, and are often included in supplements at low levels for their benefits to health. These beneficial compounds should still only be taken in very small doses, however, because they may become toxic if allowed to build up over time.
This is because heavy metals bioaccumulate in the body, meaning they’re often taken in and stored by the body faster than they are broken down. When this happens, the concentration of heavy metals in the body increases, which can lead to toxicity and the onset of heavy metal poisoning.
Heavy metal poisoning occurs when your body stores too much of a particular metal, which can then make you unwell. The heavy metals most commonly associated with poisoning are mercury, cadmium, lead and arsenic, all of which are naturally occurring and have all been found in protein powders (Bandara, Towle and Monnot, 2020).
How do heavy metals get into supplements?
The majority of heavy metals in protein powders and other supplements originate from contaminated soil, which means that plant-based protein powders are more likely to contain heavy metals than their animal-based counterparts. In fact, a report by the Clean Label Project suggests that up to 75% of plant-based protein powders test positive for lead (Clean Label Project, n.d.).
Heavy metal poisoning is rare, but human consumption of heavy metals has increased dramatically, suggesting that we should be looking more carefully at where they may be hiding. This is largely due to their use in various agricultural, mining and smelting processes, which causes them to build up in our soil, leading to negative effects for both us and our environment (Tchounwou et al., 2014).
What are the symptoms of heavy metal poisoning?
Now, as I’m sure you can imagine, each type of heavy metal can present its own symptoms of poisoning, but there are some symptoms which are common across most types. These include abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, chills, tingling sensations in your extremities (specifically hands and feet) and feeling weak. You might also experience shortness of breath and an upset stomach.
The symptoms of arsenic poisoning tend to present themselves in a more visual way, with spots or lesions on the skin, or the skin itself becoming red and swollen. Arsenic usually seeps into the earth via contaminated water and pesticides, and has even been found in seafood (Nurchi et al., 2020)
Mercury poisoning can induce the symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as changes to vision and hearing, memory loss, and the development of tremors. If left untreated, mercury poisoning can cause long term and sometimes irreversible neurological damage. It is commonly known that seafood can contain high levels of mercury as fish get mercury from water, and that eating a lot of seafood can increase the levels of mercury in the human body. However, mercury is also found in the ground, and it is the mining of mercury for use in industrial processes and products which can increase its presence in supplements (Branco et al., 2017).
The heavy metal lead was once used to paint houses and decorate children’s toys. Now, it is known that lead poisoning can cause the loss of developmental skills in children, as well as changes in moods and memory loss across all ages. Lead poisoning can also cause high blood pressure, constipation, and fatigue (Kim et al., 2015).
Cadmium poisoning can cause breathing problems and muscle pain, alongside fevers. Long term exposure to cadmium is also associated with kidney problems, and may also weaken our bones. As a pollutant, it is most often found in contaminated water from industrial and agricultural sources, and once ingested can remain in the body for a number of years (Genchi et al., 2020).
How can I avoid heavy metal poisoning?
If you’re concerned about what might be hiding in your supplements, there are certain things you can look for to alert you to their presence. Remember, heavy metal poisoning is rare, but by ensuring your supplements are heavy metal free, you can help to prevent its development.
Firstly, look for brands which test their products at the source and batch test their products regularly. Finding a brand who tests using an independent third party is even better. You’ll also want to look for a company which uses the highest quality ingredients and has a transparent testing policy.
This is especially important if you are vegan or have allergies to animal-based ingredients, as these products can contain higher levels of contaminants. This is why Vivo Life’s products are rigorously tested for heavy metals and other pollutants. Our VGanic brand promise can be found on every one of our products and it promises that we will always source our ingredients ethically and sustainably, they will be free from pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, and they will always be thoroughly tested for heavy metals and other contaminants.
Bandara, S.B., Towle, K.M. and Monnot, A.D. (2020). A human health risk assessment of heavy metal ingestion among consumers of protein powder supplements. Toxicology Reports, 7, pp.1255–1262. doi:10.1016/j.toxrep.2020.08.001.
Tchounwou, P.B., Yedjou, C.G., Patlolla, A.K. and Sutton, D.J. (2014). Heavy metal toxicity and the environment. Experientia Supplementum, [online] 101(1), pp.133–164. doi:10.1007/978-3-7643-8340-4_6.
Nurchi, V.M., Buha Djordjevic, A., Crisponi, G., Alexander, J., Bjørklund, G. and Aaseth, J. (2020). Arsenic Toxicity: Molecular Targets and Therapeutic Agents. Biomolecules, [online] 10(2). doi:10.3390/biom10020235.
Branco, V., Caito, S., Farina, M., Teixeira da Rocha, J., Aschner, M. and Carvalho, C. (2017). Biomarkers of mercury toxicity: Past, present, and future trends. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B, 20(3), pp.119–154. doi:10.1080/10937404.2017.1289834.
Kim, H.-C., Jang, T.-W., Chae, H.-J., Choi, W.-J., Ha, M.-N., Ye, B.-J., Kim, B.-G., Jeon, M.-J., Kim, S.-Y. and Hong, Y.-S. (2015). Evaluation and management of lead exposure. Annals of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 27(1). doi:10.1186/s40557-015-0085-9.