Is your protein supplement safe? Liver Doc’s team analysed 36 Indian products and here’s what they found

These beverages don't pack the protein punch they boast on their labels. Worse, they're riddled with toxins, pesticides, and heavy metals.

ByChetana Belagere

Published Apr 07, 2024 | 8:00 AMUpdatedApr 07, 2024 | 8:30 PM

Representational image. (Getty Images)

Are you chugging that protein shake, hoping for many nutritional benefits? Think again!

An insightful, self-funded analysis of India’s most popular protein drinks has uncovered shocking revelations. Turns out, these beverages don’t pack the protein punch they boast on their labels. Worse, they’re riddled with fungal toxins, pesticide residues, and heavy metals.

The eye-opening paper, published in Medicine, an open-access journal, provides a comprehensive list of the “good” and “worst” products, guiding consumers toward safer choices.

“Majority of popular protein supplements available in India have low protein content. Not just that the protein-based nutraceuticals are contaminated with fungal toxins, pesticide residues, and heavy metals. Most Indian-made herbal-protein-based supplements are poor quality and contain liver toxic botanicals,” the study cited.

Citizens protein project

This study, titled “Citizens Protein Project: A self-funded, transparent, and concerning report on analysis of popular protein supplements sold in the Indian market”, is the brainchild of hepatologist Dr Cyriac Abby Philips.

Popularly known as “The Liver Doc” on X, Dr Philips has been at the forefront of hepatology, particularly in raising awareness about the potential risks associated with herbal and alternative health remedies.

With a mission to scrutinise the quality and safety of popular protein supplements in the Indian market, Dr Philips — along with a few other researchers — embarked on a rigorous investigation of 36 popular products.

Their aim was to address growing concerns surrounding the purity and accuracy of labeling in Herbal and Dietary Supplements (HDS), including protein-based formulations.

Also Read: No such thing as ‘health drinks’, deems FSSAI

Why quality dissection of protein supplements matters

Protein supplements, a staple for athletes, bodybuilders, and individuals managing weight or protein deficiencies, have long been under scrutiny. Recent findings in the United States have highlighted the risks of hepatotoxicity associated with HDS, citing mislabeling and contamination as key culprits, sometimes leading to severe outcomes like liver failure and even death.

This study focused on a meticulous examination of popular brands in the Indian market, employing rigorous, industry-standard methodologies to evaluate the contents, labeling, potential adulteration, and contamination.

This investigation comes at a critical juncture where regulation of HDS remains a gray area; while entities like the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) mandate good manufacturing practices, the approval of supplements per se is lacking, leaving a gap in product safety assurance.

Interestingly, this research is self-funded and conducted with a pro-public stance, aiming to cut through the opacity surrounding protein supplement quality analysis. It stands as a beacon of transparency, providing consumers with vital information to make informed decisions regarding their health and wellness.

Taking to X, Dr Philips revealed, “The total cost of funding this project is INR 700,000 ($8400, by Paras) + INR 192,000 ($2300, by Liver Doc Team) = INR 892,000 ($10,700).”

The necessity of such a study has been widely acknowledged, with numerous individuals praising the study and commenting on its significance.

Amid the burgeoning popularity of HDS and the accompanying health concerns, there’s a pressing need for transparent, comprehensive data on supplement quality and safety. This investigation promises to fill this void, potentially leading to stricter regulatory standards and safer consumption practices.

Also Read: Centre kept “eyes shut” when Patanjali said allopathy has no remedy for Covid: SC

Methodology of the study

The study’s methodology was comprehensive and meticulously designed to ensure accuracy and reliability in evaluating protein supplement quality.

Product selection: Over two months, the research team conducted an extensive review of online supplement stores and visited local, large-scale, authorised protein supplement wholesale and retail sellers to compile a list of popular and best-selling pure proteins and protein-based Herbal and Dietary Supplements (HDS).

Product purchase: The selected products were then purchased directly from manufacturer stores (both online and offline) and authorised dealers to ensure their authenticity. The authenticity of the products was further verified, where applicable, using QR code instructions provided on the packaging.

Master chart preparation: A designated individual, who was not informed about the aims and objectives of the project to ensure objectivity, was tasked with preparing a detailed master chart of the purchased products. This chart included comprehensive information such as the product name, product image, listing and image of disclosed ingredients, nutritional information, disclosed protein content per 100 g serving, batch number, manufacturing date, and expiry details.

Products kept anonymous: To prevent any bias in the testing process, each product was assigned a number, and all identifying information was removed from the product packaging.

Independent lab testing: The anonymised, number-coded products were then sent to an independent, FSSAI-approved food and drug testing laboratory. This step was crucial to maintain an unbiased chain of command and ensure the integrity of the testing process.

“The blinded, number-coded products were then sent to an independent, FSSAI-approved, authorised food and drug testing laboratory (Neogen Corporation, Neogen Food and Animal Security Pvt Ltd, Kochi, Kerala, India) to maintain a reasonable chain of command,” the study said.

Final sample preparation and analysis: On receipt of the report by the analytical laboratory, the products were opened under controlled conditions following a standard operating protocol. The powder samples were then transferred to sterile containers, labeled with the respective product codes, and stored under ambient conditions until the analyses were completed.

Also Read: ‘Erratic supply, untimely communications put 80,000+ TB patients in distress’: Rao to Mandaviya

36 supplements analysed

The study involved buying and analysing 36 different protein supplements. They kept the products sealed and coded them so that the people testing them wouldn’t know which one was which, ensuring the test’s fairness. Once the tests were done, the results were given to the main researchers who then matched each product with its test result using a previously prepared chart.

The protein powders tested were of three main types: mixed blends (some with herbs, others with different protein types), purely plant-based, and purely whey-based. Most of the products were made in India, but some were from international brands.

The testing showed that many products didn’t have as much protein as they claimed. About 25 out of 36 products had less protein than advertised, with some having significantly lower amounts. However, a few products had more protein than stated, which could be good or might indicate “protein spiking” — a way to make a product seem like it has more protein by adding cheaper amino acids potentially deceiving consumers about product quality.

They also tested for toxins. A few products had fungal toxins called aflatoxins, and a small number had traces of pesticides. They checked for heavy metals too, and while they didn’t find mercury or thallium, some products had arsenic, cadmium, lead, and copper. Copper is usually added on purpose, but the amounts varied widely.

A variety of potentially harmful compounds, including industrial solvents and volatile organic compounds, were found within the products. These substances could pose additional health risks to consumers.

Interestingly, the products that had the biggest discrepancies in protein content, or that had toxins, were often the ones that were heavily advertised or commonly recommended.

Also Read: Nine-inch plate method: A sure way to shed weight, control diabetes

Herbal products analysed too

A study from Spain echoed these findings, noting significant differences between labeled and actual protein contents in supplements and emphasising the need for better regulation and monitoring due to noncompliance with labeling claims.

The report also highlighted the specific risks associated with plant-based proteins, such as aflatoxins in soy-based products and multiherbal supplements. Aflatoxins are known for their mutagenic and carcinogenic effects, particularly on the liver, emphasizing the need for consumer awareness regarding the sources of protein supplements.

Pesticide residue findings, such as the detection of fenobucarb and thiamethoxam above safety limits, underscore the potential health hazards associated with these contaminants, including neurological and reproductive issues, hormonal disruptions, and organ damage.

Herb-blended supplements containing hepatotoxic ingredients pose significant health risks, particularly those manufactured in India. Ingredients like green tea extract, turmeric, and Garcinia cambogia have been linked to severe liver injury and failure, highlighting the importance of caution and scrutiny in the use of such supplements.

Finally, the identification of compounds like cycloheptatriene through GC-MS analysis in protein products adds another layer of concern regarding the safety and quality of these supplements. The presence of various other potentially harmful compounds underscores the need for comprehensive testing and regulation to ensure consumer safety.

Overall, the study report called attention to the urgent need for better quality control, regulation, and consumer awareness in the protein supplement market to safeguard against health risks and ensure product integrity. Interestingly, Indian-made protein brands were generally found to be of lower quality and more likely to be contaminated than international brands.

The best and the worst

Here are the best protein supplement and worst ones, as per the study:

  • Best whey — One Science & Ultimate Nutrition
  • Best medium range whey — Nutrabox
  • Best vegan protein — Origin
  • Worst whey brand — Big Muscles
  • Worst plant-based — Amway
  • Worst brands advertised as best — Protinex/Ensure/B-protin
  • Worst protein content — B-Protin, Ensure Plus, Bakson’s Protein & Vegan by Big Muscles
  • Brands that need extreme caution — Protein by Elements/Nutrilite by Amway [fungal toxins]
  • Herbal blended proteins have more contaminants/pesticides than non-herbal