Food Babe Investigates: Is Your Protein Shake Safe?

This is a guest post from Vani Hari (a.k.a. The Food Babe) and New York Times Best Selling author. You can read more about her take on the food industry in her second book, Feeding You Lies!

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.

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 “?” 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. I love Perfect Fit Protein Powder from the Tone it up girls! All organic, 0 sugar and you can put it in so many things- like homemade pancakes!

  2. According to the Vega website:

    We believe everyone should have the right to know what they’re eating. That’s why Vega is committed to using non-GMO ingredients to make our products. Unlike organic certification, there is currently no universally-recognized North American certification standard for non-GMO status. Until there is, Vega is actively working with a third-party non-profit organization—the Non-GMO Project—for verification of our non-GMO products.
    Vega Maca, Vega SaviSeed, and Vega Antioxidant Omega Oil Blend have already been Non-GMO Project verified. Due to the large number of ingredients, Vega One (like our Vega Sport products) are more complex; they are in the latter stages of becoming verified. Vega has taken an active part in a Non-GMO Project working group helping to apply the Non-GMO Project’s food-focused verification standard to dietary supplements.

  3. This article is off! For one she doesn’t have Shakeology Vegan listed and neither Shakeology formula contains any refined sugars, I know the vegan does not contain the rbGH and they also do not use GMO foods. I think “Food Babe” does have some wonderful articles but don’t bash products that are actually doing people good and giving them better health. Really do your research through the company who sells it and not what things on the internet say. Thank you.

  4. I know this website is dedicated toward whole foods, and I am all for that, but unfortunately, sometimes these protein shakes are necessary, economical, and doctor recommended. When in high school and running a lot, I had to GAIN weight and used Ensure Plus. That was the only way I could get enough calories without getting sick. As a nursing student, I also see these supplements used in hospitals where we treat malnourished individuals. So while I do appreciate whole foods and try to stick to them as much as my budget allows, it is also important to remember than not everyone can afford them, or perhaps their nutritional needs require something different. Just food for thought.

    1. Hi Nicole, I am an independent distributor and use Ultimate Pro-Fit daily. It contains:Cacao powder, maca extract, grape skin extract, raspberry powder, cranberry powder, prune powder, cherry powder, blueberry extract, bilberry extrCT, STRAWBERRY POWDER, broccoli cruciferous extract, spinach powder, tomatoe powder, carrott powder , onion powder, microfiltered whey protein isolate(milk), solagrain plus(soy protein extract,oat flour, whole milled flaxseed, soy hull fiber, psyllium, maltodextrin, flax fiber, cellous, guar, soy lechtin), soy protein isolate, ultrafiltered whey protein concentrate,sunflower oil powder(sunflower oil, sodium caseinate, mono & diglycerides), natural tocopherols, silicon dioxide & tri-calcium phosphate, natural flavors, stevia, salt & gum xanthem gum. It is gluten free and I use it in a lunch smoothie I make with almond milk, Greek yogurt & fruit. It taste GREAT doesn’t make me feel bloated and does sustain me so I’m not snacking. My husband has lost 11 lbs so far and I have lost 8. Please let me know if you have additional questions.

  5. check out perfect fit from tone it up! it’s certified organic, non-gmo and vegan! plus, it’s delicious!

  6. We use Food Matters Super Food Protein – I also use their Super Greens – They are both Organic and all plant based – Super Food Protein tastes awesome – my kids eat it for breakfast daily without issue! The Super Greens are an acquired taste yet tolerable. Only place I know to buy it is Highly recommended! Has anyone else tried it?

  7. I read a few months back that the Garden of Life raw protein powder I had been using did test positive for heavy metals. The company responded by saying they would address this issue but I haven’t heard any more regarding this and I have not used their product since. I see this is one of the protein powders you are recommending so I am wondering if Garden of Life has indeed removed heavy metals from the protein powder and that is why you are now recommending it?

  8. I would love to see your feedback on Arbonne’s protein powders
    NONE of these: GMOs, soy protein, maltodextrin, refined sugar, whey protein, heavy metals, antibiotics, rbGH, artificial colors, or carrageenan, AND never tested on animals. Also, Arbonne’s protein powder is NOT gritty and tastes delicious!

    Made with Arbonne Protein Matrix Blend (pea protein
    isoate, cranberry protein, rice protein), sugar cane, sunflower oil, natural vanilla flavor, corn starch, xanthan gum, flax seed, stevia, leaf extract, gum acacia, guar gum.

  9. I just started using Arbonne protein shakes that claim to use better ingredients such as pea a a cranberry protein. Is this a safe product?

  10. I’m interested in your thoughts about IDLIFE and their group of products. They are considered gluten free and gmo free. Looking forward to your comments.

  11. Becky Littlefield

    I don’t see anything from Isagenix listed. (Isalean or Isalean Pro). Have you investigated these? Supposedly they are supposed to be “real food”. I’ve had great weight loss success with them and I feel good too.


  13. Will you add Juice Plus Complete and Nature’s Pearl NP Pro to your comparison chart please?

  14. Each Arbonne shake contains 20 grams of protein from vegan botanical sources, including cranberry, yellow pea and rice proteins. When used in combination, rice protein and yellow pea protein offer a Protein Efficiency Ratio that rivals dairy and eggs – but without their potential to promote allergic reactions.
    Arbonne protein is Kosher certified and Vegan certified and will be certified Gluten Free by the end of May 2014 and Non GMO verified by the end of the year

  15. I’ve read that the Garden of Life RAW protein also tested positive for heavy metals. We threw ours out.

  16. Isagenix is the best! Nutritionally dense while eliminating the body of toxins. You will have more energy, sleep better, and the inches will melt away!

  17. This is full of fear-mongering ridiculousness. I REALLY love this blog, but I despise the association with the fear-mongering Food Babe. She spouts of dangers of things that are not actually proven dangerous, and where there is no real science to back her up (i.e., GMOs – science is pretty clear that there has been no demonstrated harm).

    I think you should avoid protein shakes because they are full of things that most of us don’t need, most of us get plenty of protein from a healthy diet, and that we should just eat FOOD (rather than drink sugary protein).

    But I don’t think they are dangerous and I really hate every.single.fear-mongering post from Food Babe – she brings this fantastic blog down. You have a powerful message on your blog and it really doesn’t need this.

    1. Robin M. Diercks

      Are you kidding me! Obesity is out of control in the US 68% are overweight and of that number 18% are under the age of 11. 80 million have one or more types of heart disease. Diabetes affects 25.8 million people. 100 years ago CANCER affected 1 in every 100 people. Now it is 1 in 3 women and 1 in 2 men. Most Americans dont eat breakfast and fast food restraunts are on every street corner.

  18. Hi FoodBabe,

    I too am interested in knowing if Juice Plus Complete is considered safe. I know they are NSF certified and their Soy is non-GMO, but interested in hearing your thoughts and giving the protein to kids. According to their website, “Juice Plus+ Complete is made from all non-GMO ingredients and is 100% plant-based. It’s gluten free; it’s low in fat; it contains no cholesterol, artificial flavors, artificial colors, or preservatives”. I know their ingredients are listed as a Nutritional Facts rather than a Supplements Facts like Shakeology. Which is a huge difference and shows that JP is a whole food.


  19. What about JAY ROBBS protein. IS it a fully certified Organic Protein Powder as they claim?

  20. You have no information on your site related to one of the most popular protein shakes in the world, Forever Lite Ultra with Aminotein. I would suggest that you evaluate that one too.

  21. Thank you VAni.
    I just had a Tera’s shake and found out that it is on your approved real food list. I am trying to control calories intake because of diabetic 2
    I like your blog, very informative, easy to read,

Comments are closed.