Why Supplement Quality is Important for YOU!

How do you know if you can trust that the supplements will have in them what they say they have in them? Short answer…it’s complicated. Supplement quality is more difficult to assess than you might think.

Having a trustworthy source of potent supplements is vital.

Unfortunately, the supplement industry is not well regulated by the FDA or any regulatory organization for that matter. Because of the lack of oversight many supplement manufacturers falsely advertise their products. This practice is all too common in retail stores. In 2015 the New York Attorney General conducted an investigation on store-brand herbal supplements sold at GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart.

This investigation found that four out of five of the supplements they tested did not contain any of the herbs listed on their labels. Four out of five!

Instead, cheap fillers such as powdered rice, house plants, and asparagus were the actual components of the supplements. So, a consumer, for instance, who purchased ginkgo biloba at Walmart or valerian root at Target might be getting zero percent of the herb they had hoped to be taking.

Additionally, a number of supplements at GNC were found to contain unlisted ingredients used as fillers, things like peanuts and soybeans. So, a consumer taking a supplement in hopes to improve their health may actually be taking something they are allergic to.

Furthermore, even if the supplements do contain the ingredients they claim to contain, there is a chance that they are not concentrated at the dosage marked on the label. Dr. Erin LeBlanc, a researcher at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research in North Portland, conducted a study she later published in JAMA. She investigated 55 vitamin D supplements produced by 12 different mass market supplement manufacturers. She found that some of the supplements contained only 9 percent of the vitamin D that they claimed to! And, some contained 146 percent of the advertised dose. Only one contained within 10% the amount listed on the label. 

This lines up with my own experience. Back in the day when I was just out of school I did some freelance work consulting for a number of different supplement companies. One of the companies flew me to California with the head of their sales department to present our products to the buyer’s committee at a large health food chain. I was asked a question about our quality control, which I answered honestly. I was fired when we got home because I didn’t lie to the committee. No joke.

What about buying online to save money?

If all that was not unsettling enough, if you buy your supplements on Amazon or eBay or any number of other online retailers, there is a chance that they are actually counterfeit products! If a brand is very popular and sells well it is pretty easy for a third-party to copy the company’s labels, manufacture a worthless pill, put it in a bottle that looks exactly the same as the real thing, and then list it online on a website that looks trustworthy

These fraudulent companies sell the products at a reduced rate so that customers buy it.

In reality, the supplements arriving at the front door could be just filler. There is also a risk of expiration dates being altered, or the products being stored in a way that compromises the quality of the product (think hot warehouse!) I have friends who work at two different physician owned supplement companies who bought back their OWN product from amazon resellers and found that when they compared lot numbers to product that expiration dates had been scrubbed and changed. Oof. 

So…what to do?

Fortunately, there are supplement companies out there that are producing quality products. To learn more about how to find them, check out this article I wrote on exactly how to make sure what you are taking is what you think it is. I carry some high quality supplements in my office for patients and clients (and ship as well,) and discount the more expensive products significantly from retail. But that said, as far as I’m concerned it is unethical to tell someone ‘you need this supplement’ then tell them they should buy it from you. If your practitioner tells you this, think hard about whether you’re comfortable having them be your doctor. 

Here in Portland if people prefer to purchase locally I will often recommend a local pharmacy called Pharmaca, or I send people to another local source—we have many in Portland including NUNM the local naturopathic college.  Pharmaca can ship as well.

There are also some brands that have physician label and mass market label. This means that some of the higher quality supplements that I can offer as a physician can also be purchased from your local health food store. But buyer beware. Just because something is sold at the health food store doesn’t mean it’s good quality. And just because the person working at the health food store swears by a product also doesn’t mean it’s good quality. They are trained by the manufacturers and their reps directly. Remember that job I mentioned above that I was fired from? Truly, it can be sketchy out there.

In short? Vet carefully. Buy quality.

Yours in Health,

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