First, what the heck is a heavy metal?
Metals are a natural part of the world and found in the earth’s crust. While not all exposure to heavy metals presents a risk of harm, there are certain heavy metals that can be toxic to human health when chronic or high-level exposure occurs.
Today we’re going to talk about four examples of heavy metals: lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury. Lead is part of many manufacturing processes and can be found in paint, cosmetics and toys. Cadmium can be used in television screens, lasers, batteries, paint pigments, and cosmetics. Arsenic can be found in the air, water and land. Mercury is released into the environment from volcanic activity, weathering of rocks and as a result of human activity.
Sources of heavy metals in food
So here’s the thing: Heavy metals are a natural part of the earth’s crust. Most soils throughout the U.S. and world—even organic soils—contain trace amounts of heavy metals.
Plants absorb naturally occurring minerals, including heavy metals, from the soil. When plants become foods, these minerals can be incorporated into the final product. This is why you may have heard that certain foods, especially plant-based foods, may contain trace amounts of heavy metals.
The plant-based ingredients in Vega blends are of the highest quality, are Non-GMO Project verified, and in many cases are minimally processed so that we can retain as much nutrition as possible. But, like you, we want to be sure that our products are safe. Our robust Quality Assurance program ensures our products meet both our own rigorous internal standards, as well as all relevant government regulations.
Levels of heavy metals in common foods
Because heavy metals are commonly found in nature, including in the soil, they can also be found in many foods you find at your local grocery store. Recognizing this fact, the FDA published a study on minerals and heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, cadmium and lead, in a variety of foods. You can see the full 2017 “Total Diet Study Element Results Summary Statistics on Market Baskets 2006 through 2013” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition here: https://www.fda.gov/downloads/Food/FoodScienceResearch/TotalDietStudy/UCM184301.pdf
To give you some context, here are a few examples from this study that may contain traces of heavy metals:
- Cucumber 0.011 mcg/g arsenic on average
- Strawberries 0.015 mcg/g cadmium on average
- Spinach 0.004 mcg/g lead on average
That large cucumber you added to your salad, may contain 3.08mcg arsenic based on this study.
If you’re enjoying 2 cups of strawberries as your afternoon snack, that would work out to 4.56mcg cadmium on average.
Tossing 2 cups of spinach into your morning smoothie? That’s also tossing in 0.24mcg lead, according to this data.
That’s not to scare you, it’s to say that simply because there may be detectable amounts of heavy metals in these foods, that doesn’t mean they aren’t safe to consume. It also doesn’t take away from beneficial nutrients they can provide, like the fiber and antioxidants you get from eating spinach and berries, or vitamins and minerals, like potassium, you get from eating cucumbers.
Why does whey have less heavy metals?
You may have heard that whey products often have lower heavy metal amounts compared to plant-based products. But that is because there are more steps for processing between the soil and your shake. For one, with animal-based proteins, cows digest a plant-based diet and produce milk. That milk is further processed to create whey during cheese production. As a result, whey tends to have fewer heavy metals.
In comparison, Vega’s pea protein is harvested, soaked in water, heated and separated to create a pea protein isolate, which is dried and then ground into powder. Because processing is limited, Vega products are designed to retain nutrients, reflecting Vega’s commitment to providing its consumers the highest quality, nutrient dense products as possible.
Vega products are safe for you to enjoy as part of your balanced diet. Our pea protein products do not contain heavy metals in excess of safe threshold levels, and where applicable, are within regulatory thresholds, including California’s Prop 65.
What exactly is heavy metals testing?
While there is no federal mandatory testing method for detecting heavy metals in foods, certain states have enacted specific regulations regarding heavy metal content in food and consumer products. For example, California’s Prop 65 sets threshold limits for certain chemicals and heavy metals based on consumption (in mg/day). Prop 65 sets these threshold limits based on consumption in part because California acknowledges that for some chemicals, there are allowable daily levels or levels that present no significant risk.
Because testing methods are constantly evolving, our Quality Assurance team works directly with our suppliers and manufacturers to implement the most accurate testing methods. The process we are currently using to test for heavy metals lead, arsenic, mercury, and cadmium is ICP/MS (inductively coupled plasma/mass spectroscopy). This can detect heavy metals at concentrations as low as one part per quadrillion. In fact, it is one of the most powerful methods for trace element detection. Because testing methods have evolved to detect such low amounts of metals, it is possible to detect metals at levels well below regulatory thresholds and well below levels that present a risk.
You can be confident when consuming Vega products that the amount of naturally absorbed heavy metals is below any threshold level of concern.
How did we even get here?
Perhaps you’re reading this because you may have heard about an article on Labdoor.com, from Clean Label Project or on your favorite news site about heavy metals in food. These third-party companies usually do not release their testing methods or raw data, and do not show brand or product names if they do release raw data.
In particular, the information reported from the Clean Label Project regarding protein powders fails to present a factually accurate report supporting its conclusions regarding Vega’s products. Clean Label Project fails to recognize that Vega products are safe for consumers and in compliance with all applicable laws, including California’s Proposition 65.
California’s Proposition 65, governing consumer exposure to certain chemicals, expressly allows for certain safe amounts of chemicals – including heavy metals — to be present in a product. These amounts are called “safe harbor” levels, and are calculated based on a consumer’s average daily exposure level. The average daily exposure calculation is highly complex, requiring expert analysis and reliance on variables that likely were not factored into by the Clean Label Project. Applying appropriate and approved guidelines for proper, accepted scientific and statistical analysis, Vega’s products fall within California’s stringent safe harbor levels for exposure for lead, arsenic, cadmium, mercury.
What Vega is Doing Next
At Vega, we test for metals in our products, and we’re going to continue to do just that. In addition, Vega is part of a group of companies and organizations now known as the Regenerative Organic Alliance working together to develop a new standard for soil health for organic foods, which will be known as Regenerative Organic Certification. The Regenerative Organic Alliance defines the certification as a “holistic agriculture certification encompassing robust, high-bar standards for ensuring soil health and ecological land management, pasture-based animal welfare, and fairness for farmers and workers.” This certification will have a stronger emphasis on soil health than the current organic standards.
ICP/MS (inductively coupled plasma/mass spectroscopy) Microscopy