Food Babe Investigates: Is Your Protein Shake Safe?

Vani Hari (a.k.a. The Food Babe) is a regular contributor on 100 Days of Real Food. To learn more about Vani check her out on “Our Team” page.

Protein shakes, powders, and supplements are incredibly popular with the health conscious crowd. Considering what typical protein shakes promise – sleek muscles, weight loss and a quick, easy “healthy” meal replacement – it’s logical to see why.

Unfortunately, the food industry is making an absolute killing (maybe literally) selling ones that are filled with highly processed denatured proteins, chemicals, preservatives and other additives. There’s one thing in common for all of them – they are all processed and deciding on whether or not they are actually “real food” comes into question.

Now not all processed things we put in our body are technically bad for us – but understanding what exactly is in your protein shake is critical to deciding whether to consume it, select an alternative, or discontinue use all together.

Below is a summary chart of the ingredients in popular protein shakes and powders:


 “?” indicates protein supplement has not been tested or proven to have that specific ingredient


We’ve discussed GMO’s here, Artificial Colors here, Carrageenan here, Antibiotics here, and rBGH here before so I won’t go into them again in detail specifically. Regardless, you should know consuming a protein drink with any of those ingredients is a risk to your health and if you don’t know why – please read up on those past posts to learn more.


I should also mention that none of the protein brands listed here (Body by Vi, Slim Fast, Designer Whey, EAS Myoplex, Shakeology, Special K, Ensure, Isogen, Pure Protein, Herbalife, Atkins, Gatorade Recovery, Vega, and Muscle Milk) are certified organic nor are they Non-GMO project certified. That means all of them might contain GMOs and most definitely contain pesticides that are considered harmful and potentially toxic with long-term exposure. This increased exposure is linked to birth defects, nerve damage, and even cancer. 

The President’s Cancer Panel has urged us not to consume food sprayed with pesticides and doesn’t believe any amount is safe. Because of this reason, I can’t imagine willingly wanting to spend a serious chunk of change (protein shakes are expensive!) to buy any of these listed products as a way to help build muscle, lose weight or replace a meal.


Heavy Metals

Consumer Reports conducted an eye-opening investigation that revealed several protein powders contain heavy metals – specifically arsenic, cadmium, and lead. EAS Myoplex tested for two heavy metals in higher amounts than the USP limit of exposure per day. Muscle Milk had the highest of all levels of all brands tested.

Here’s an excerpt taken from the Consumer Reports investigation on Protein Powders:

Cadmium raises special concern because it accumulates in and can damage the kidneys, the same organs that can be damaged by excessive protein consumption. And it can take 20 years for the body to eliminate even half the cadmium absorbed today.” This is a highly toxic metal, and while there are some cases where decisions have to be weighed against relative risks, accepting that you have to be exposed to any cadmium at all in your protein drink after your workout is definitely not one of them,” says Michael Harbut, M.D., director of the Environmental Cancer Initiative at the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Royal Oak, Mich.
“When these toxic heavy metals are combined in a product that is marketed for daily use, that raises serious public health concerns, especially for pregnant women, children, and young adults,” says Burns, who has been a toxicology consultant to state and federal government agencies.

Soy Protein

Many protein drinks use soy protein concentrate or soy protein isolate in conjunction with other proteins. Over 90% of the soy produced in this country is GMO – but that’s not the only reason to avoid soy protein.

When soy is looked at from a macronutrient perspective, it can give the illusion of a very healthy food – full of plant based protein, essential amino acids and fiber. However, the soy that is grown and produced today is largely hybridized, making the amino acids largely indigestible leading to digestive issues that have caused many people to be allergic to soy.

What’s worse is when soy is isolated to just its protein state, it becomes severely denatured and can cause hormonal disruptions because of the excessive amount of estrogen contained in it. Soy also has an abundance of phytic acid that leeches calcium and other vital minerals from your body.


Calling out an ingredient filler like maltodextrin may make you think I’m being nitpicky – but is this carb substitute that is likely derived from genetically modified corn really necessary in protein powders?

Maltodextrin can be used to make a substance like “fibersol” that, for instance, is in the Body by Vi Shakes. This fibersol is made by heating maltodextrin at very high temperatures and treating it with enzymes and acids to make a fiber your body simply can’t digest and makes you feel artificially full. If you are eating enough plant-based foods, there is no reason to supplement with this type of chemically derived fiber.

Fibersol is just another additive that does absolutely nothing for your long term health. Why not add a real food like spinach or a banana to your smoothie instead?

Acesulfame Potassium or Acesulfame K 
This is the most common form of artificial sweetener available in protein drinks (and tons of other processed foods) today and according the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) it is anything but safe. CSPI reported the safety tests of acesulfame-K that were conducted in the 1970s were inadequate.

Specifically, two rat studies suggest that the additive might cause cancer, but these studies were never addressed by the FDA before they approved the substance to also be used unregulated in soft drinks. In addition, it is mentioned that large doses of acetoacetamide (a breakdown product of this sugar) have been shown to affect the thyroid in rats, rabbits, and dogs. This toxic sugar substitute can be found in EAS Myoplex, Isogen, Pure Protein, Atkins, and Muscle Milk.

Whey Protein Isolate
Whey protein isolate is highly processed, unlike whole protein food concentrate. Most whey protein isolates start from ultra-pasteurized conventional milk that has antibiotics and growth hormones and are then exposed to acid processing, stripping alkalinizing minerals, naturally occurring vitamins and lipids. This processing makes whey protein isolate over acidifying in the body.

Chronically consuming whey protein isolate without appropriate balance of alkalizing foods, can acidify your body and over time increase your vulnerability to degenerative disease. This overly processed form of whey can be found in a lot of popular protein drinks that are not included in this list but marketed under generic or store brand names including the one by Gatorade called “Recover.”

Luckily, you don’t have to rely on protein drinks because simply eating a variety of real food alone gives you plenty of protein

But, if you are still concerned about protein you could make a nut butter based smoothie like Lisa’s PB & J Smoothie or choose from any of these real food sources of protein below:

Meat sources of protein – beef, pork, poultry, eggs, yogurt, cheese, fish (very important to choose organic when possible if you go this route)

Vegetarian sources of protein – legumes (dry beans, lentils, and peas), nuts and seeds (almond butter, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds), whole grains (oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, pasta), dark leafy vegetables, and some fruits like avocado


Fortunately, there are a few Food Babe approved protein powders (including Warrior Food Extreme, Tera’s Organic Whey, Nutiva’s Hemp Protein, and Garden of Life Raw) that do not contain any of the ingredients mentioned here, and would fall under the definition of “real food” in my book.

If you decide to supplement your protein, it is very important to double and triple check the ingredient list and check with the manufacturer to see how they process their protein  – visit this post on to find out the protein powders that I personally buy and occasionally use in my smoothies.

Comments have been closed on this article, which was written by Vani Hari. If you have a question or comment you can reach her at

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366 thoughts on “Food Babe Investigates: Is Your Protein Shake Safe?”

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Gina. You might want to hop over to Food Babe’s site and ask this question there. Supplements really aren’t our area of expertise. :) ~Amy

  1. I am currently using Young Livings Pure Protein Complete shake and would love your take on this and how it measures up. Thank you, love being apart of your army!!

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi there, Blake. You should pose this question to Food Babe on her site as our guest posts are often only answered by their author for a limited time. :) ~Amy

  2. I am curious about Shaklee products. I see they are free of GMO’s. Specifically the soy protein product. I am new to clean eating and really dissecting ingredients. Would love to know if the Tera’s Organic Whey is safe to use while breast feeding.
    Thank you

    1. I’ve been using Shaklee 180 shakes for the past year – absolutely love them and what they stand for. Their mission for safe, non-toxic products is 2nd to none, plus they have the tests and research to back it their claims. I’m aware that they’ll pull products from the line if tainted at any point in the process -from the field to the bottle :)

  3. So, I guess she isn’t familiar with Juice Plus’s Complete shakes? The ONLY category with a checkmark would be soy, but it is non-GMO, organic, water washed edamame dehydrated at low temp. The other ingredients are also whole food: pea, chickpea, apple, bean sprouts, quinoa, radish sprout… well, you can read the label on the site, but you get the idea. They are the only shakes I would even consider consuming, and I love them. This isn’t a plug for my business, btw. I don’t really care WHO you get them from, I just want to clear the air and give facts for those who might be looking for a healthy, real food option.–complete-variety.html

  4. My shakeology says non GMO. Putting a question mark next to something is deceiving, you seem to purposely be trying to make these products look bad. Where did you do your research on any of these products? You give no citations at all.

  5. What sources did you use? I don’t see anything cited and these are pretty bold claims. I ask because I have done my research, very thoroughly, and can tell you that some of your points are flat out wrong.

  6. Thanks for the article. I chose the Nutiva Hemp Protein based on your recommendations. I will purchase some this evening at a local health store.

    Thanks again

  7. I am looking at the following brands and wondering what you think — Tone It Up’s Perfect Fit Protein (says Non-GMO, no soy, etc) but I’m getting confused on what to look for.
    Also curious about the It Works! Products and your thoughts.


  8. Hi Lisa. I’ve been reading your info regarding protein. I’m from South Africa and the protein products you mention is only available if imported – at great cost. There are a few natural and organic protein powders available in SA but I’m not sure how they whey up against the products you have investigated so far. Web sites like or do stock such products here in SA. Have you or are you going to investigate any off these protein products? it would be great to get the low down on these as well.

    Another protein product that ‘they’ say is good is full of protein is Spirulina. What is your take on this and would you take this as a supplement?


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