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Are There Really Heavy Metals in Sports Supplements?

Dietary supplements offer a wide range of health benefits, but some also include potential risks, like heavy metals. Our expert offers advice on safer shopping selections.

It’s important to ensure the supplements you take are being made safely by manufacturers. In most cases, you might not be aware of the potential risks for the supplements you find on drug store shelves, including contaminants that can be harmful to your health.

While many elements ⁠— like iron, calcium and magnesium ⁠— are essential, others ⁠— like heavy metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium and hexavalent chromium ⁠— are highly toxic to humans. Arsenic, a metalloid per the strict technical definition, is sometimes also referred to as a heavy metal.

We turned to our expert John Travis, Technical Leader for NSF’s Certified for Sport® program, to help you navigate the confusing process of selecting safer sports supplements.

First it is important to understand how heavy metals find their way into sports supplements and what they are. Heavy metals occur naturally in the soil as well as in rocks and minerals. They can be absorbed by plants from the soil or irrigation water. They are in the minerals we mine and use as food additives such as table salt and calcium carbonate (think antacid tablets). It’s hard to avoid them in our daily lives, but we want to try to avoid levels that can cause harmful effects to our health.

Health Risks of Heavy Metals

Lead, the most well-known toxic heavy metal, can harm the brain development of infants and children. The U.S. FDA, European Union and other regulatory bodies have paid close attention to lead in children’s foods and set policies to reduce its presence. Cadmium is another toxic heavy metal that may cause kidney damage, and arsenic is known to cause cancer and can be absorbed by rice from contaminated fields. Finally, mercury is a neurotoxin and consumed in the fish we eat.


Like other contaminants, safe levels of these heavy metals in food and dietary supplements have been identified to ensure those products are safe for people to take or eat. The best way to protect yourself from getting too much of a toxic heavy metal is to purchase supplements, performance protein powders and other products that have been evaluated to confirm that the ingredients listed are what is actually in the package or bottle and that they do not contain heavy metals at unsafe levels.

Like other contaminants, safe levels of exposure have been identified for heavy metal contaminants to ensure they are at safe levels for human consumption.

Testing and Certification

Here’s how NSF’s dietary supplements certification program makes sure your supplements contain only the ingredients listed on the label in the amounts shown:

  • Ingredient Review and Verification Testing
    Our toxicologists and analytical chemists verify what's on the label is in the bottle in the amount shown.
  • Contaminant Review and Testing
    Our analytical chemists and microbiologists test the product to ensure there are no unacceptable levels of contaminants, such as the toxic heavy metals.
  • Facility Inspection
    Our highly trained auditors scrutinize manufacturing facilities’ processes annually to ensure they follow Good Manufacturing Practices when making dietary supplements. This ensures those manufacturers have quality controls in place to make products safe for us to use.

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