The Unz Review: An Alternative Media Selection
A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media
 TeasersGene Expression Blog
Supplements Don't Work Because They're Fake
🔊 Listen RSS
Email This Page to Someone

 Remember My Information



=>

Bookmark Toggle AllToCAdd to LibraryRemove from Library • BShow CommentNext New CommentNext New ReplyRead More
ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc. More... This Commenter This Thread Hide Thread Display All Comments
AgreeDisagreeLOLTroll
These buttons register your public Agreement, Disagreement, Troll, or LOL with the selected comment. They are ONLY available to recent, frequent commenters who have saved their Name+Email using the 'Remember My Information' checkbox, and may also ONLY be used once per hour.
Ignore Commenter Follow Commenter
Search Text Case Sensitive  Exact Words  Include Comments
List of Bookmarks

A Really Bad Week For The Supplements Industry:

What did Schneiderman’s office do? Well, they conducted a scientific study, using DNA sequencing to test the ingredients in six types of herbal supplements, looking at different brands from multiple stores. They tested each sample five times to ensure accuracy. They collected 78 different samples and ran 390 tests in all.

Some of you won’t be surprised that these firms are padding their bottom line by substituting cheap ingredients (e.g., rice powder) in lieu of what’s on the label. But they can game the system this way because of loose regulatory oversight. Meanwhile, there are periodic moral panics about genetic sequencing and typing….

 
• Category: Science • Tags: Supplements 
Hide 27 CommentsLeave a Comment
Commenters to Ignore...to FollowEndorsed Only
Trim Comments?
  1. Sequencing is dangerous as it could frighten people about what’s in their suppliments. I’m against it! Ah well, I’m off to the gun range after I stop at the liquor store.

  2. Is there any prospect in the near future of legislation that brings the supplement industry under FDA regulation? Seems that powerful factions in both parties support the fake supplement industry.

    Are normal civil lawsuit able to solve this problem? DNA testing is cheap enough now. Where are the class action lawsuits from everyone who bought GNC supplements in the last few decades?

  3. A related study was carried out at the University of Guelph (Ontario, Canada) in 2013.
    http://www.uoguelph.ca/news/2013/10/study_herbal_pr.html

    It will be interesting to see if these findings strike a lethal blow to the naturopathy movement.

  4. To be fair, the rice powder probably does just as much to provide the promised benefits.

  5. I thought there were already laws against fraud.

  6. I suppose the EU regulation of supplements wasn’t so silly after all, despite the industry trying to kick up a fuss about it on social media as it was being implemented. Ancaps certainly have some explaining to do to justify this market failure.

    And just for fun, did “big pharma” do this deliberately to invalidate natural alternatives? One could have fun considering the possibilities.

  7. There’s the lesson for you – get big enough as an industry fast enough, and you can get Congress to block FDA oversight completely if they try and extend it. Which is pretty much what happened with multivitamins and their ilk.

    Meanwhile, there are periodic moral panics about genetic sequencing and typing….

    Yep. If I was running one of those companies, I’d try to expand and grow as much as possible before the FDA comes knocking while making friends in Congress.

  8. Is it that simple? Obviously some supplements work and some (maybe most) don’t. Some are frauds and some contain what they claim. Some work for me but not for you and viceversa.
    But isn’t it possible for the DNA molecules to be completely destroyed thru processing yet still contain the claimed ingredients?

    • Replies: @Michael Finfer, MD
    The problem here is that while there are a few supplements that have been shown to be effective, such as folic acid in early pregnancy or vitamin D and calcium in certain older women, for the rest there is either no evidence of efficacy or some evidence of harm, such as vitamin E, which has been associated with an increased incidence of prostate cancer.

    Overall, except for certain specific circumstances, and for treatment of known deficiencies, there is really no reason to spend money on this stuff, and Americans now spend about $30 billion every year on these items.

    The real issue is the DSHEA, which passed Congress about 20 years ago and eviscerated the FDA's authority to properly regulate these substances. The only solution is legislation, and I have no hope for that in the near future.

    The Annals of Internal Medicine published a review of this topic in 2013. At the time, it was open access, so head over there and take a look at it.
    , @Michael Meo
    We may not be able in processed organic matter to recover all genetic material in meaningful form, but that's millions upon millions of DNA amide pairs. All we want is a characteristic footprint, not a complete library of every chromosome. And that, identifying footprints, is a well-established forensic tool: we let people out of Death Row on the basis of such results.
  9. Your criticism does not apply to supplements per se, but only to unethical and/or careless manufacturers.

    It’s true that manufacturers of vitamins and other dietary supplements are not regulated like drug companies, though it’s worth noting that drug companies have had their own problems both with quality control and counterfeit drugs.

    It’s also true that the benefits of vitamins and other dietary supplements are disputed and the evidence is ambiguous. Some of their most vocal defenders and critics have direct financial links to the side they’re defending. That biases their assessment of the evidence, both pro and con.

    However, it is not true that consumers must remain ignorant about whether vitamins and dietary supplements contain the ingredients listed on the label and no toxic contaminants. The U.S. Pharmacopeia (where I worked for a while on a contract) mainly tests drugs, but will for a fee test vitamins and other dietary supplements. It certifies that they contain the ingredients listed on the label and that they do not contain harmful contaminants. Naturally, USP takes no position on the effectiveness of what it tests: it certifies only that you’re getting what you think you’re getting.

    Another good resource is Consumerlab.com, to which I am a paying subscriber (and in which I have no financial interest of any kind). Consumerlab.com does independent testing of vitamins and other dietary supplements, including things like protein powders and meal bars. It publishes the results on its web site and is often quoted by mainstream media like The New York Times. Moreover, the site does not publish only positive results: when a supplement fails testing, it publishes that, too.

    http://ashesblog.com/2013/11/05/you-pays-your-money-and-takes-your-chances/

    • Replies: @Sandgroper
    N.S., for some time now on and off I have been using GNC protein powders, under the impression it was a reputable/trustworthy American brand. What are the chances I have been getting what I have been paying for?

    FWIW, I don't live in America, and would have difficulty shipping samples to somewhere like Consumerlab for testing.

    I guess this just underlines what hardcore body builders have always told me - it's better to get your protein from natural sources (i.e. food) than from supplements.
    , @Sandgroper
    It's OK, I see Consumerlab have done a report on some that I have used, so I'll join and get the report.
  10. If the supplements contain plant extracts, or acidic conditions-treated plant material, or calcium/magnesium-treated material, then they may contain no source plant DNA whatsoever? If these cases are brought to the court of law then it may not be all that hard to defend them…

  11. I see Chinese fraud here. What goes into these vitamins and supplements often comes from China. This was not the case 10 years ago. Example: the glucosamine sulfate tablet you take might be pressed (made) in America from Chinese glucosamine sulfate////// which has been diluted with cheap rice flour

    The bargain brands (such at Walmart) will be Chinese sourced. A greater chance of this being the case

    • Replies: @rustbeltreader
    They need to fill shelf space and booze is out. Pop beaners or better yet peanuts which the US produces in bulk.
  12. @Clyde
    I see Chinese fraud here. What goes into these vitamins and supplements often comes from China. This was not the case 10 years ago. Example: the glucosamine sulfate tablet you take might be pressed (made) in America from Chinese glucosamine sulfate////// which has been diluted with cheap rice flour

    The bargain brands (such at Walmart) will be Chinese sourced. A greater chance of this being the case

    They need to fill shelf space and booze is out. Pop beaners or better yet peanuts which the US produces in bulk.

  13. @TenD
    Is it that simple? Obviously some supplements work and some (maybe most) don't. Some are frauds and some contain what they claim. Some work for me but not for you and viceversa.
    But isn't it possible for the DNA molecules to be completely destroyed thru processing yet still contain the claimed ingredients?

    The problem here is that while there are a few supplements that have been shown to be effective, such as folic acid in early pregnancy or vitamin D and calcium in certain older women, for the rest there is either no evidence of efficacy or some evidence of harm, such as vitamin E, which has been associated with an increased incidence of prostate cancer.

    Overall, except for certain specific circumstances, and for treatment of known deficiencies, there is really no reason to spend money on this stuff, and Americans now spend about $30 billion every year on these items.

    The real issue is the DSHEA, which passed Congress about 20 years ago and eviscerated the FDA’s authority to properly regulate these substances. The only solution is legislation, and I have no hope for that in the near future.

    The Annals of Internal Medicine published a review of this topic in 2013. At the time, it was open access, so head over there and take a look at it.

  14. I wonder if they tested NOW Foods or Jarrow Formulas. People who are serious about optimizing health (i.e. people who get blood work done and know who Kelly Starrett is) have known for years that most of the mid- and bottom-shelf supplements one can buy in stores are bunk. The market works fine, you just need to shop at an high-end vitamin store in a big city or buy off amazon. The last thing we want to do is bring the FDA into this.

    • Replies: @Michael Finfer, MD
    But we do need the FDA involved. They have the expertise in safety and efficacy and the evaluation of clinical trials. The FTC only has authority in the event of an intentional fraud.
  15. Fwiw I am not arguing for fda. Ftc enforcement fine with me.

    • Replies: @res
    I see at least three enforcement aspects here.

    1. Fraud - Claiming to be selling something which is not actually present in the stated amount. My understanding is this is currently enforceable. If not, it should be--whether supplement, pharmaceutical, or otherwise. I believe this covers the original post above.

    2. Permission to sell/buy - I don't think the government has any business interfering with supplements here unless there is a clear issue with possible harm. And even then I think a warning label and/or taxes is a more appropriate response unless you honestly believe the threat is worse than some threshold (say the threat of smoking?). As far as I know DSHEA dictates current law in this area.

    3. Advertising claims (both on the product itself and other statements from the manufacturer, e.g. on a website) - This is complicated. I don't see a clear way to resolve the issues here, but I do think prohibiting referencing peer reviewed literature on manufacturer websites is going too far. Perhaps a useful approach would be to have manufacturer/industry information sites along with FDA/AMA/etc. information sites. Referencing both would be required in advertising.

    My worry is that too often I see people making arguments based on 1. which seem to have as an agenda implementing restrictions on 2.
  16. @Economic Sophisms
    I wonder if they tested NOW Foods or Jarrow Formulas. People who are serious about optimizing health (i.e. people who get blood work done and know who Kelly Starrett is) have known for years that most of the mid- and bottom-shelf supplements one can buy in stores are bunk. The market works fine, you just need to shop at an high-end vitamin store in a big city or buy off amazon. The last thing we want to do is bring the FDA into this.

    But we do need the FDA involved. They have the expertise in safety and efficacy and the evaluation of clinical trials. The FTC only has authority in the event of an intentional fraud.

    • Replies: @Clyde

    But we do need the FDA involved. They have the expertise in safety and efficacy and the evaluation of clinical trials. The FTC only has authority in the event of an intentional fraud.
     
    Keep them the hell out!! All they will do is jack up prices. As for you personally, go buy from a reputable brand like Jarrow and NOW.
    Supplements are not advanced medicines in need of clinical trials. Either you buy magnesium ascorbate or you do not. Or some NOW foods __ 4x6 pro-biotic powder like I just did. Another very straightforward item that you either buy or ignore if you don't think it will do a thing for you.
    Those crappy Walmart vitamins hurt no one. They were adulterated with harmless fillers so they could be sold cheaper. Meanwhile lawsuits fly all the time from the side effects of FDA approved drugs.
  17. @Razib Khan
    Fwiw I am not arguing for fda. Ftc enforcement fine with me.

    I see at least three enforcement aspects here.

    1. Fraud – Claiming to be selling something which is not actually present in the stated amount. My understanding is this is currently enforceable. If not, it should be–whether supplement, pharmaceutical, or otherwise. I believe this covers the original post above.

    2. Permission to sell/buy – I don’t think the government has any business interfering with supplements here unless there is a clear issue with possible harm. And even then I think a warning label and/or taxes is a more appropriate response unless you honestly believe the threat is worse than some threshold (say the threat of smoking?). As far as I know DSHEA dictates current law in this area.

    3. Advertising claims (both on the product itself and other statements from the manufacturer, e.g. on a website) – This is complicated. I don’t see a clear way to resolve the issues here, but I do think prohibiting referencing peer reviewed literature on manufacturer websites is going too far. Perhaps a useful approach would be to have manufacturer/industry information sites along with FDA/AMA/etc. information sites. Referencing both would be required in advertising.

    My worry is that too often I see people making arguments based on 1. which seem to have as an agenda implementing restrictions on 2.

  18. @Michael Finfer, MD
    But we do need the FDA involved. They have the expertise in safety and efficacy and the evaluation of clinical trials. The FTC only has authority in the event of an intentional fraud.

    But we do need the FDA involved. They have the expertise in safety and efficacy and the evaluation of clinical trials. The FTC only has authority in the event of an intentional fraud.

    Keep them the hell out!! All they will do is jack up prices. As for you personally, go buy from a reputable brand like Jarrow and NOW.
    Supplements are not advanced medicines in need of clinical trials. Either you buy magnesium ascorbate or you do not. Or some NOW foods __ 4×6 pro-biotic powder like I just did. Another very straightforward item that you either buy or ignore if you don’t think it will do a thing for you.
    Those crappy Walmart vitamins hurt no one. They were adulterated with harmless fillers so they could be sold cheaper. Meanwhile lawsuits fly all the time from the side effects of FDA approved drugs.

    • Replies: @Michael Finfer, MD
    The FDA may drive up the prices, but it think the higher prices are worth paying if we receive in return some assurance that the substances being sold are the ones that are in the bottles, that they are both safe and effective, and that there are no undeclared ingredients in those products. Those are all currently major problems that need to be addressed, and Congress has insisted upon standing in the way.

    By the way, supplement manufacturers are not immune from lawsuits either. The fact that manufacturers are being sued is besides the point. In the current environment, every health care provider is used at some point in their careers, and every manufacturer is used as well. The filing of lawsuits is not evidence of anything.

  19. @TenD
    Is it that simple? Obviously some supplements work and some (maybe most) don't. Some are frauds and some contain what they claim. Some work for me but not for you and viceversa.
    But isn't it possible for the DNA molecules to be completely destroyed thru processing yet still contain the claimed ingredients?

    We may not be able in processed organic matter to recover all genetic material in meaningful form, but that’s millions upon millions of DNA amide pairs. All we want is a characteristic footprint, not a complete library of every chromosome. And that, identifying footprints, is a well-established forensic tool: we let people out of Death Row on the basis of such results.

  20. My comment to the control freaks and their appeal to government regulation:

    At what point do you stop? A billion regulations and laws? A trillion regulations and laws? Bureaucracies to micromanage every single aspect of a person’s life? Government screws up everything it touches, yet somehow it’s your solution to every perceived problem.

    My suggestion: mind your own business. Nobody is forcing you to buy any of these products, but somehow you don’t mind forcing your beliefs on everyone else.

    As for most supplements, people would be better off watching their diets, exercising more, and getting better sleep than haphazardly taking them.

  21. @Clyde

    But we do need the FDA involved. They have the expertise in safety and efficacy and the evaluation of clinical trials. The FTC only has authority in the event of an intentional fraud.
     
    Keep them the hell out!! All they will do is jack up prices. As for you personally, go buy from a reputable brand like Jarrow and NOW.
    Supplements are not advanced medicines in need of clinical trials. Either you buy magnesium ascorbate or you do not. Or some NOW foods __ 4x6 pro-biotic powder like I just did. Another very straightforward item that you either buy or ignore if you don't think it will do a thing for you.
    Those crappy Walmart vitamins hurt no one. They were adulterated with harmless fillers so they could be sold cheaper. Meanwhile lawsuits fly all the time from the side effects of FDA approved drugs.

    The FDA may drive up the prices, but it think the higher prices are worth paying if we receive in return some assurance that the substances being sold are the ones that are in the bottles, that they are both safe and effective, and that there are no undeclared ingredients in those products. Those are all currently major problems that need to be addressed, and Congress has insisted upon standing in the way.

    By the way, supplement manufacturers are not immune from lawsuits either. The fact that manufacturers are being sued is besides the point. In the current environment, every health care provider is used at some point in their careers, and every manufacturer is used as well. The filing of lawsuits is not evidence of anything.

  22. @Borachio
    Your criticism does not apply to supplements per se, but only to unethical and/or careless manufacturers.

    It's true that manufacturers of vitamins and other dietary supplements are not regulated like drug companies, though it's worth noting that drug companies have had their own problems both with quality control and counterfeit drugs.

    It's also true that the benefits of vitamins and other dietary supplements are disputed and the evidence is ambiguous. Some of their most vocal defenders and critics have direct financial links to the side they're defending. That biases their assessment of the evidence, both pro and con.

    However, it is not true that consumers must remain ignorant about whether vitamins and dietary supplements contain the ingredients listed on the label and no toxic contaminants. The U.S. Pharmacopeia (where I worked for a while on a contract) mainly tests drugs, but will for a fee test vitamins and other dietary supplements. It certifies that they contain the ingredients listed on the label and that they do not contain harmful contaminants. Naturally, USP takes no position on the effectiveness of what it tests: it certifies only that you're getting what you think you're getting.

    Another good resource is Consumerlab.com, to which I am a paying subscriber (and in which I have no financial interest of any kind). Consumerlab.com does independent testing of vitamins and other dietary supplements, including things like protein powders and meal bars. It publishes the results on its web site and is often quoted by mainstream media like The New York Times. Moreover, the site does not publish only positive results: when a supplement fails testing, it publishes that, too.

    http://ashesblog.com/2013/11/05/you-pays-your-money-and-takes-your-chances/

    N.S., for some time now on and off I have been using GNC protein powders, under the impression it was a reputable/trustworthy American brand. What are the chances I have been getting what I have been paying for?

    FWIW, I don’t live in America, and would have difficulty shipping samples to somewhere like Consumerlab for testing.

    I guess this just underlines what hardcore body builders have always told me – it’s better to get your protein from natural sources (i.e. food) than from supplements.

    • Replies: @Michael Finfer, MD
    From what I have read, you have maybe a 50/50 chance that what is on the label is in the bottle, maybe less, and at least as great a chance that there are things in the bottle that are not declared on the label, and an unknown, but probably not insignificant chance, that an undeclared ingredient might be a known toxin or a known allergen.

    There is a need for appropriate regulation. Too much and you can kill off useful products. Too little and you can end up with situations like the one we not have with supplements. There is a happy medium in which regulations only kill off the nonsense and leave useful products that we can trust. That is what I am advocating for.
  23. Another problem with the supplements industry is they often blend together weak amounts of various vitamins, minerals and herbs and no one ingredient in these blends is provided at a high enough level to be of medical benefit. For example, there is some evidence St John’s wort helps with moderate depression at a certain dosage. However many supplement companies will combine a low level of St John’s wort with low levels of various herbs and vitamins and then claim their bits and pieces concoction will have a “synergistic”effect, with no scientific evidence to support their claim.

    If they want to claim a particular herbal extract helps with a particular ailment they should stick to providing single ingredient formulas which are of the same strength as those used in scientific trials.

  24. In large part you can thank Sen. Orrin Hatch for the very loose regulation of the supplements industry. It’s a big industry in Utah, and they’ve given Hatch a lot of money.

    Serious scientific studies probably use pure ingredients, but it does make you wonder how many of the studies showing no benefit for various supplements are the result of using fake supplements.

  25. @Borachio
    Your criticism does not apply to supplements per se, but only to unethical and/or careless manufacturers.

    It's true that manufacturers of vitamins and other dietary supplements are not regulated like drug companies, though it's worth noting that drug companies have had their own problems both with quality control and counterfeit drugs.

    It's also true that the benefits of vitamins and other dietary supplements are disputed and the evidence is ambiguous. Some of their most vocal defenders and critics have direct financial links to the side they're defending. That biases their assessment of the evidence, both pro and con.

    However, it is not true that consumers must remain ignorant about whether vitamins and dietary supplements contain the ingredients listed on the label and no toxic contaminants. The U.S. Pharmacopeia (where I worked for a while on a contract) mainly tests drugs, but will for a fee test vitamins and other dietary supplements. It certifies that they contain the ingredients listed on the label and that they do not contain harmful contaminants. Naturally, USP takes no position on the effectiveness of what it tests: it certifies only that you're getting what you think you're getting.

    Another good resource is Consumerlab.com, to which I am a paying subscriber (and in which I have no financial interest of any kind). Consumerlab.com does independent testing of vitamins and other dietary supplements, including things like protein powders and meal bars. It publishes the results on its web site and is often quoted by mainstream media like The New York Times. Moreover, the site does not publish only positive results: when a supplement fails testing, it publishes that, too.

    http://ashesblog.com/2013/11/05/you-pays-your-money-and-takes-your-chances/

    It’s OK, I see Consumerlab have done a report on some that I have used, so I’ll join and get the report.

  26. @Sandgroper
    N.S., for some time now on and off I have been using GNC protein powders, under the impression it was a reputable/trustworthy American brand. What are the chances I have been getting what I have been paying for?

    FWIW, I don't live in America, and would have difficulty shipping samples to somewhere like Consumerlab for testing.

    I guess this just underlines what hardcore body builders have always told me - it's better to get your protein from natural sources (i.e. food) than from supplements.

    From what I have read, you have maybe a 50/50 chance that what is on the label is in the bottle, maybe less, and at least as great a chance that there are things in the bottle that are not declared on the label, and an unknown, but probably not insignificant chance, that an undeclared ingredient might be a known toxin or a known allergen.

    There is a need for appropriate regulation. Too much and you can kill off useful products. Too little and you can end up with situations like the one we not have with supplements. There is a happy medium in which regulations only kill off the nonsense and leave useful products that we can trust. That is what I am advocating for.

  27. I buy whole ginseng root from Chinatown. It might be a placebo, but at least it’s not a fake placebo!

Comments are closed.

Subscribe to All Razib Khan Comments via RSS