In February, 2015, a major controversy kicked up around supplements and vitamins when New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sent letters to four major retailers telling them to halt sales of store branded herbal supplements. In brief, he asserted that independent testing revealed that 79% of their products in fact did not contain what the label claimed they did and instead had things like dehydrated house plants in them.
This news especially disturbs advocates of diet and supplementation like me, who are trying to urge people to eat healthier and supplement their diets. In a war to get people to understand how important what put in our bodies is, this finding threatens to undermine the credibility of all supplements simply because of guilt by association. So should this study cause us to shy away from all nutraceutical supplements? Or is it simply, in the words of Attorney General Schneiderman, another case of “buyer beware”?
The dietary supplement industry in the US accounts for $30+ billion in consumer spending, and a great deal of that is spent at stores such as those in the finding, GNC, Target, Walmart, and Walgreens. Heathcare professionals have long asserted that the types of mass-produced, bulk-priced vitamins and supplements available at these stores are not always effective, able to be absorbed, or entirely good for you.
Take for instance the example of fish oils. Oils produced from fish who have become contaminated by high levels of chemicals like mercury can in fact pass those on to consumers—only in even more concentrated doses. Many of the less expensive, poorer-quality fish oil products have faced questions about this problem, and we advise our patients to be very careful with the brands they select. The discovery Schneiderman revealed does not, in fact, really change much about what nutritionists have been saying for decades: You get what you pay for.
One of the central issues in this problem is that much of the supplement industry is unregulated. Now, I do not say that just because the FDA has tested and approved a product, it’s automatically always safe. Even Tylenol comes with hefty use warnings. However, because independent testing and verification is not mandatory, other healthcare professionals and I always recommend going with a brand that has voluntarily subjected itself to rigorous testing.
In a nutshell, the burden for checking the quality of the supplements we take falls on each of our own shoulders—we are individually responsible for choosing what we put in our bodies, both in diet and in supplemental forms. We can’t always expect some all-knowing body to make our consumer choices for us and must use our own reasoning to select the product we choose.
I personally am very careful about what I recommend to patients. A favorite brand I use for patients has achieved three different independent certifications for Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) by world-leading arbiters and voluntarily subjects its products for testing and review. This brand also treats its products like prescriptions, urging a professional nutraceutical partner like me connect patients to the company rather than patients buying their products directly. That way, patients use the products the way they should, as directed by those of us who know how to use them.
I’ll be the first to admit, companies who voluntarily submit their products for rigorous testing do not sell cheap products. I frequently talk to patients who find it difficult to understand how their insurance will pay for prescription drugs that may have harmful side effects or only mask their conditions, but will not pay for health-promoting nutraceuticals, medical foods, and supplements—tools that can actually help address the underlying causes of their conditions.
The thing is, I’m not in sales—I’m a healthcare professional. I’m not in business to sell supplements, but I want my patients to have the best quality materials. So I’ll tell you what I tell them: we each choose what to put in our bodies. Choose wisely.
Do you know what’s in your supplement bottle?