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The Clean Label Project - From a Food Scientist's POV

May 9, 2018

This article focuses on the Clean Label Project's 2018 Protein Powder Study – its results, criticisms, and (in the sake of constructive feedback and progress) proposed solutions for the organization.

In February, the Clean Label Project (CLP) released a report of their findings unique to the protein powder market. This is following reports in Pet Food (April 2017) and Infant Formula & Baby Food (October 2017).
 

How to Read this Article.

This article is divided into two main parts:

Part 1: An accurate overview of the CLP's approach, including:
- What happened
- The results
- Image 1 infographic

Part 2: A constructive review of the CLP's approach, including:
- Image 2 infographic
- Recommended revisions
- Questions
- Conclusion

If you're already familiar with the Clean Label Project's 2018 Protein Powder Study, you may want to skip ahead to Part 2.

Part 1: Overview of CLP's Current Findings.


What Happened.

The CLP completed a "study" of protein powder products. A total of 52 brands were analyzed. These brands were selected because they composed the top selling protein powder products according to Nielsen and Amazon’s best seller list. According to CLP, analysis per product involved a screening of 130+ toxins, which include heavy metals, BPA, pesticides, and other contaminants.

The Results.

The CLP released the below infographic (Image 1) as a part-summary of their findings. On their website, you can access “Protein Powder Raw Data,” “Brand Report Cards,” “Protein Powder Product Rating Lists,” and “Protein Powder Study FAQs.” It appears a fairly transparent process.

Following Image 1 is a straight-forward overview of the CLP's current "study" template (applied to the 2018 Protein Powder Study's findings). This article is split into 2 main parts: Part 1 is intended to inform the reader of the current methodology used by the CLP. The latter portion (Part 2) is intended to provide a straight-forward, transparent criticism that can be easily followed along by the reader using Image 2 and its corresponding key.

IMAGE 1. The infographic was released as a part-summary of the Clean Label Project's findings in their 2018 Protein Powder Study | Source: [2]



When accessing the findings of the CLP's Protein Powder Study, you will find a template of 4 critical categories: (1) “Protein Powder Raw Data,” (2) “Brand Report Cards,” (3) "Protein Powder Product Rating Lists,” and (4) “Protein Powder Study FAQs." Their specifics are outlined as follows - 

(1) Protein Powder Raw Data:

A total of 133 samples are listed with their respective results for arsenic, cadmium, mercury, lead, BPA (bisphenol A), and BPS (bisphenol S). The samples are not further identified by brand, product name, nor lot/batch number.

When viewing the raw data, the reader will notice each analyzed heavy metal or contaminant has two columns, the first column reporting the results, and the second reporting the LOQ. To better understand, LOQ is acronym for the limit of quantitation. LOQ is the lowest concentration at which the analyte (component being analyzed/tested for) can be quantitatively detected and reported with a high degree of confidence. In other words, it is as close to zero as analyses allow. [1]

(2) Brand Report Cards:

The CLP recognizes there are a lot of options available on the market, and the parameters for quality are not clear-cut. In creating an easier system, the CLP created a “Brand Report Card” to see how a certain brand fares compared to its competitors (for the products analyzed).

This is a 5-star system, though the criteria/variables toward their ranking are not clear. Upon accessing the individual links in their “Protein Powder Product Rating List,” the 5-star system is broken into these groups, each rated 1-5 stars:


1. Arsenic/mercury
2. Cadmium/lead
3. Residual solvents/pesticides
4. Mycotoxins/Melamine/Antibiotics/BPA/BPS
5. Nutritional Superiority

(3) Protein Powder Product Rating Lists:

The CLP has presented a list of products in order of greatest to least stars. The basis for their 5-star system is outlined per product, with its CLP-determined star rating. In addition to the five aforementioned groups (collectively referred to as “Results Summary”), there are three other/separate star rankings for:

1. Overall rating for the brand
2. Product purity
3. Product value

(4) Protein Powder Study FAQs

In addition to Frequently Asked Questions about the Clean Label Project, you can access FAQs unique to each study the CLP has so far published, including the Protein Powder Study.


Part 2: A Constructive Review.

The Clean Label Project refers to itself as a nonprofit corporation that works with a third-party laboratory for their analytical testing (for 130+ contaminants and nutritional superiority).

What could possibly go wrong?

For starters, the “Sampling & Analysis Process,” which identifies: “test results are benchmarked – meaning they are compared to the results of other products.”

This would conclude (unless in the case of no analytical difference whatsoever), there is a winner (5-stars), and a loser (1-star). This is not a fair representation of product quality. Hypothetically, all products could be within safe limits of heavy metals and contaminants, but if one brand has slightly more or less of any, it would be rated above or below others (meanwhile, they could all be safe and uphold quality standards).