The supplement industry has long been viewed as a bunch of snake oil salesmen hoping to get rich quick and (figuratively) skip town. Realistically, there are companies who have been selling ineffective, under-dosed products for premium prices for decades and they keep getting away with it.
Why is that? Well, it mostly has to do with consumer education, or in this case, lack of education. People tend to believe the claims made by supplement companies but what they don’t realize is that practically nothing in this industry is effectively regulated, especially quality.
In fact, there are many people out there who actually believe the FDA has a review process for supplement like they do for Drugs and Food. In reality, the FDA merely lays out guidelines which it doesn’t police particularly well, and leaves it up to supplement companies to “follow the rules”.
As far as regulation goes, the supplement industry is essential the Wild West…
Still, there’s just something about the supplement business that attracts a certain kind of unethical scumbag. Maybe it’s the allure of convincing someone that a little pill will fix all their problems (God knows the pharmaceutical companies got that down).
I personally believe it’s because the supplement industry—which is really representative of the fitness industry—relies on the perpetual human need to improve our bodies, minds, longevity, etc…The list certainly goes on.
There will always be people who want to change things about themselves and, unfortunately, that means there will always be people looking to capitalize on that desire.
We’ve seen a few companies come and go because the management team was clearly just in it to make a quick buck, but the ‘scandals’ you read about on Stack3d hardly scratch the surface.
What’s especially troubling, to me at least, is the recent wave of supplement companies (more than we would like to think) intentionally under-dosing their supplements or, at the very least, remaining oblivious to the fact that their manufacturers are doing it, and refusing to take the necessary steps to prevent it.
If you’re under the impression that things aren’t so bad, you really have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes. Sure, Consumer Reports rants about how unregulated and sketchy the supplement industry is, but even they hardly scratch the surface…Not to mention they offer nothing in the way of a solution (more on that later).
Now, if you’re ready to face facts, let’s just dive right in…
Exhbit A: Steroids In OTC Muscle-Builders
A study published in the 2001, in the Clinical Journal Of Sports Medicine analyzed a total of 12 random over the counter supplements which were tested for purity and label claim accuracy.
The results were quite alarming, actually…
1 product contained 10mg of actual Testosterone (not even a precursor), a scheduled anabolic steroid, which of course wasn’t listed on the label.
1 product contained upwards of 70% more of the ingredient than the label stated.
The other 10 products contained less than the label claimed for active ingredients.
So, out of 12 randomly selected supplements, none of them were consistent with label claims.
Exhibit B: Yohimbine Supplement Label WAY OFF
A recent (much needed) 2016 study, published in Drug Testing And Analysis, analyzed 49 supplements labeled as Yohimbe Extract or Yohimbine dietary supplements.
Out of 49 supplements, only 11 even listed the precise dose of Yohimbine (the active ingredient that matters) on the label, leaving 38 supplements that contained an undisclosed amount of Yohimbine, a potentially dangerous stimulant if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Only 2 of the 49 supplements analyzed contained the same amount expressed on the Supplement Facts panel. That’s 4% out of a pretty large sample size. Not good…
If that’s not scary, I don’t know what is. It’s just another example of supplement companies using plant extracts that contain unknown levels of active components and not even caring that they can cause people harm if they don’t know what they’re ingesting.
There is nothing inherently dangerous about Yohimbine. It’s the uncertainty that makes it dangerous. If you take 10mg of Yohimbine, you’ll be fine. If you accidentally take 100mg, you might die…so yeah, label accuracy matters, ESPECIALLY with potent stimulants like Yohimbine.
Just another reason to stick with only Third Party Tested supplements which are proven to contain the correct amount of active component and nothing else. In fact these sickening findings about Yohimbine supplements is what prompted me to release Singular Sport Rauwolscine (Alpha Yohimbine).
Exhibit C: Ingredients Listed On Label, But Not Present
A 2014 study, published in the Journal Of Pharmaceutical And BioMedical Analysis, tested two supplements claiming to contain various levels of two Furanocoumarins:
These two unique molecules, found in Grapefruit, are potent inhibitors of CYP3A, an enzyme which is responsible for oxidizing (breaking down) a ton of different substances including drugs, perscription medications, and supplements. About 50% of the substances you ingest interact with this enzyme.
It come as no surprise that such an effective absorption enhancer would make it’s way into the supplement industry, especially considering that many ineffective supplements “would be” effective if it wasn’t for absorption issues.
The results of this study were not surprising given what we’ve already established about tons of companies under-dosing their products and not meeting label claims, but there is one thing that stands out about it.
None of the supplements tested contained anywhere near the amount of 6,7-dihydroxybergamottin and Bergamottin listed on the label (expected), but all of them—even those with tiny trace amounts of DHB—inhibited CYP3A.
So, the bad news is this is yet another example of supplement companies lying about what’s in their products. The good news is that DHB is apparently an effective absorption enhancer even at super low doses! A bit of a silver-lining, if you will…
Exhibit D: Contaminants, Substitutes, Undisclosed Fillers
A 2013 study published in BMC Medicine collected 44 herbal products from 12 brands which collectively contained 30 different plant species. Half the supplements tested contained plant extracts that were not the same as those listed on the label.
About 48% contained the same plants extract listed on the label, but about one third of these (so around 25% of the total supplements) contained additional ingredients and fillers not listed on the label.
30 out of the 44 products tested substituted the stated active ingredient for another ingredient entirely and only 2 (out of 44) products tested were pure and contained no contaminants.
This is a prime, scientific example of a practice that is absolutely rampant when it comes to herbal supplements, but it’s even more dangerous than simply under-dosing a product. Using a different ingredient than the ingredient listed on the label could end up causing some serious harm…
If company A decides Rhodiola Rosea is too expensive and annoying to source and just decides to use Garlic Powder instead, what happens when someone is allergic to Garlic?!
This has actually happened with various supplements and we’ll get into it a little later on. But first, let’s make one thing clear about Herbal Extracts…
Plants can be cultivated, processed, extracted, and purified in so many different ways. How each step of the process is performed determines the quality and purity of the final product. Unfortunately, very few brands give much visibility into how their ingredients are sourced and as a result, there are a lot of ineffective products out there.
If you’re taking an Herbal Supplement, we highly recommend looking into how it’s cultivated and sourced. It really matters.
Exhibit F: Arsenic In Kelp
This particular study was prompted by an incident of Arsenic poisoning that occurred in a middle aged women. The cause of the poising was determined to be a Kelp supplement she was taking, which she of course thought was keeping her healthy (instead of killing her slowly).
When the Kelp supplement was tested, the results showed dangerously high levels of Arsenic (a super lethal substance, even in tiny amounts).
As if it weren’t obvious enough that the Kelp supplement was the cause, the woman’s symptoms dissipated after a few weeks of stopping use. So yeah, a Kelp supplement that she thought was making her healthy had so much Arsenic that it was actuallly killing her. Imagine that!
Anyway, this incident prompted researchers to analyzed 9 random Kelp supplements obtained from various supplement stores to determine whether or not the high Arsenic content was an issue for Kelp supplements in general.
They found that 8 of the 9 supplements tested contained high than the upper tolerance level for Aresenic established by the FDA.
Considering the fact that these were 9 randomly chosen supplements that seemingly had nothing to do with each other, the researchers concluded that high Arsenic content is most likely rampant in Kelp and Kelp-containing supplements.
Exhibit G: The WalMart/Target/GNC Scandal
The media ended up dropping this series of stories suprisingly quickly, but just about everyone in the supplement and fitness community heard about it. The New York States Attourney General’s Office issued cease and desist letters last year, accusing the retail giants of selling supplement which:
- contained ingredients that were not listed on the label
- did not meet label claims (inaccurate)
- contained allergens that weren’t listed on the label
WalMart was the worst of the bunch, with absolutely none of the six supplements which were tested showing any trace of the listed ingredient whatsoever. Target was the lesser offender of the bunch but still proved to be quite unreliable when it comes to label accuracy.
GNC, which was already having it’s fair share of financial issues before this whole mess happened, said that it would re-evaluate its business relationships and implement new policies that require product analysis and ingredient testing. Given the poor financial condition of the company, however, we doubt that’s really happening.
Specifically, the company claims they will start requiring DNA identity testing for all plant-based products the sell. When it come to plant-based supplements, DNA testing is really the only way to tell one extracts from another. In fact, if this policy was implemented earlier, none of these issues would ever occur. As you can imagine though, this type of testing is VERY expensive. Imagine if GNC had to test every single product they carry. They’d become insolvent immediately.
This is the part where we accuse GNC, Target, and WalMart of giving in to corporate greed and cutting costs when they should have had strict quality control standards set in place to begin with…right?
Well actually, it’s not just the big boys that are doing this. Very few supplement brands or supplement retailers bother to test the products they sell because, legally, they don’t have to.
So, Who’s To Blame?
Theres no doubt about it. The supplement industry is shady. The examples discussed in this article are just a few of the well-known ones. We can only assume there are thousands of other supplements out there that
- Don’t meet label claims
- Contain dangerous ingredients
- Contain ingredients not listed
When it comes to holding companies accountable for these sorts of unethical/illegal practices, there are a lot of ways to shift the blame. That’s just how the industry is set up.
You see, what most people don’t realize about the supplement industry is that most supplement companies are not manufacturing companies. That is, they pay third party contract manufacturers (who specialize in supplements hopefully) who generally supply the ingredients, mix the powder, fill the bottles/containers/capsules, slap the label on, and seal it shut.
Then, the manufacturers ship it to a warehouse, either belonging to the company or, as is more often the case, a retailer that sells the companies products.
So when you sit back and look at the whole process, the company who sells the product actually doesnt have very much control over what’s in the product, how it’s made, whether the facility is up to code, etc.
Naturally when something goes wrong–the product doesn’t meet label claims, or worse, hurts someone–the company is always going to point the finger at the manufacturer. Of course, there’s always a bunch of forms that help free the manufacturer of any liability, but they can still be liable if they intentionally under-dosed or adulterated a product.
While it is true that manufacturers who do shady things should be held accountable, it’s also true that it’s up to supplement companies to choose appropriate manufacturers and not to trust that they won’t do shady things. If you select a manufacturer because they offer you cheap prices, you just might end up getting what you pay for…under-dosed supplements.
If a manufacturer is cheap for no apparent reason, it’s probably because they’re cutting corners. Manufacturers that adhere to cGMP standards tend to do things the right way. Still, there’s one major issue…
Most Supplements Are Never Tested
The FDA lays out a set of guidelines called current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP) which many supplement manufacturers claim to adhere to. When you see a seal on the side of a supplement, or on a supplement companies website, that says “cGMP”, it just means the supplement was manufactured in a facility that allegedly meets the cGMP criteria the FDA has created which, by the way, isn’t particularly hard to adhere to.
However, just because a manufacturer claims to be compliant with these rules and regulations doesn’t mean they actually are.
In fact, the only way for the FDA to even know if manufacturers are taking their rules seriously is for them to randomly visit facilities and inspect them..which they do find the time…
In fact, about two-thirds of all recent FDA inspections of supplement manufacturing facilities resulted in failures due to various compliance issues. One of the most cited issues was that most manufacturers were not testing their raw materials for purity and identity. What do you know?
Certificate Of Analysis: Worthless Or Not?
Many manufacturers that don’t want to spent extra money testing their products rely on the Certificate of Analysis (COA) passed on to them from their ingredient supplies (from China), and it deons’t take a genius to see the conflict of interest there.
Why would a manufacturer–someone who only makes money when you, the customer, are under the impression you’re getting a fair deal–show you a Certificate Of Analysis that was anything other than positive.
Of course the COA says the product is pure. If you take a closer look at it, you might also see that it’s just a peice of paper. Anyone can forge a COA in like 15 minutes and it’s not inconcievable that some chemical salesman in China would do that if it meant making a bunch of money and definitely getting away with it, at least once.
The only way for manufacturers to be COMPLETELY sure that the ingredients they buy are pure is to test those ingredients themselves, but that type of chemical testing requires chemists on staff, special equipment, and man hours. In other words, it’s expensive and for most supplement company owners, it’s just an extra expense.
Unfortunately, this lack of checks and balances within the supply chain leaves the door wide open for impure/adulterated/low-quality supplements. The only way to put a stop to these shady back end practices is for supplement companies, like us at Momentum Nutrition, to Third Party Test their supplements.
Third Party Testing: The Only Way To Trust
Third Party Testing is when products are sent straight off the line to a chemical testing lab that has no affiliation with the company or any other company and, quite frankly, doesn’t care either way how the results come out. They just perform chemical analyses on whatever samples they’re given. That’s it. It’s just true, unbiased science.
These types of labs exist for a variety of reasons–to test industrial chemicals, to test food for baceteria, etc–but many of them have the capabilities to test for just about any supplement for identity, not to mention perform bacterial and heavy metal tests.
At Momentum Nutrition, we use a fully accredited GMP Certified manufacturer and we’re happy to say they’ve never done anything even remotely sketchy, but we still send all finished products to Third Party Testing facilities just to be sure that we’re getting what we pay for and, more importantly, our customers get what they pay for.
Here’s the results from the most recent batch of Singular Sport Rauwolscine, the only Rauwolscine supplement that contains 98% pure, synthetic Rauwolscine as opposed to some questionable extract that probably contains a bunch of other things you don’t want to consume.
As mentioned earlier, we test for three things:
- Identity and Purity – Does the supplement contain only the ingredients listed on the label?
- Heavy Metals – Does the supplement contain dangerous levels of heavy metals such as iron and mercury?
- Microbial Contaminants – Does the supplement contain bacterial contaminants?
Since consumers are starting to wise up and demand testing from supplement companies, I’ve noticed a lot of companies posting results that just show heavy metal testing and microbial analysis.
Don’t get me wrong, these things are important for safety reasons, but don’t you really want to know whether the ingredient that’s on the label is really in there, at the dose listed on the label? Go ahead, ask your favorite supplement company to produce an athentic COA that shows identity testing anaylsis for each and every ingredient. They’ll most like not respond…
That’s the more expensive kind of testing that most supplement companies won’t do. To be honest, at Momentum Nutrition we see no other way to do it. Third Party Testing is a cost of doing business as far as we’re concerned.
Hopefully that becomes a trend…
The Bottom Line On Trust In The Supplement Industry
…It doesn’t exist. Sadly, there are only a handful of companies doing things completely ethically. Even a lot of the brands that you feel like you trust are not Third Party Testing their supplements for cost reasons so there is absolutely no guarantee that those supplements contain the stated ingredients at the stated doses and are safe for human consumption.
But as the Founder of Momentum Nutrition, I have some pretty good insight into just how shady things how become in this industry so I’ll just put it like this…If you can’t see the test results, don’t trust it.