Powerful protein supplements manufacturers like Muscle Milk and Myoplexwere on an incredible trajectory, benefiting strongly from the workout world philosophy that protein building was not only good for energy but for recovery.
But a damning Consumer Reports investigation threatens to cripple the burgeoning business that is a big part of the $2.7 billion sports nutrition marketplace.
The report, released earlier this month online and in its July issue, revealed that lab tests of some of the market leaders in protein drinks had more than trace levels of arsenic, lead and cadmium.
The brands that had the highest concentration of toxic elements, according to the report, were EAS Myoplex Original Rich Dark Chocolate Shake, Muscle Milk Chocolate powder and Muscle Milk Vanilla Crème.
With money and credibility at stake, the owners of these brands, Abbott Labs(EAS Myoplex) and Cytosport (Muscle Milk) addressed the reports with statements on their Web sites. (Cytosport.com and AbbotLabsEAS)
Both contended that there was no safety risk in their protein shakes, that trace levels of these elements are naturally found in foods and that the levels found were below the current EPA and WHO safety standards.
Because the supplement market is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it’s understandable that evaluating standards could be called into question.
For its part, Consumer Reports, used the proposed U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) standards to measure the safety of these products. The article’s writer Andrea Rock told CNBC that that standard was used because it is thought to be the most up-to-date.
“We know that there are some of these toxic elements in the food we eat,” said Rock, a senior editor for the magazine. “That’s part of our point. To avoid unnecessary exposure. People know they might find cadmium in the oysters they occasionally eat, but not in something that they are putting in their bodies every day.”
Consumer Reports notes that some of the largest consumers of the protein products are 12- to 18-year-olds. And both brands have plenty of stars marketing their products. Endorsers for EAS Myoplex include Larry Fitzgerald, Chase Utley and Matt Hasselbeck. Muscle Milk endorsers include Adrian Peterson, Shaquille O’Neal, Brandon Roy and Ryan Braun.
Both Abbott and Cytosport contend that Consumer Reports’ use of three servings of protein in its tests are more than typical. Rock said the number was arrived at based on what was written on packaging of the products tested. Muscle Milk packaging, for example, says that a consumer can take it before, during and after workouts as well as prior to bedtime.
But a Cytosport official told CNBC that those words aren’t meant to be taken literally.
"What is written on our product is guidelines for potential occasions for use of the product,” said Chris Kildow, Cytosport’s director of sports marketing. “We are not specifically suggesting that a consumer drink a shake at every one of those times every day. If that were the case, a jug of Muscle Milk powder would only last them a week."
NSF International, a non-profit public health and safety company, which says it has developed the only standard for nutritional and dietary supplements, says the two Muscle Milk products in question fall within the organization’s guidelines. The brand pays a fee to the organization for the testing, but says it has no influence over the results.
As for the report, NSF released a statement saying it could not comment on the test results, but said that the publication did not reveal the lab where the tests were performed and its accreditation qualifications. Consumer Reports doesn’t ever release where it performs its tests.
It remains to be seen how these companies will continue to react to the report. Beyond its original statement, Abbott would not say anything more. How active they will be will likely depend on whether a report like this by the gold standard in product testing leads to a decline in sales.
Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com