Don’t throw your money away on food supplements

Plenty of dubious food supplements (Photo: Chris de Rham)

Plenty of dubious food supplements on the market (Photo: Chris de Rham)

We agree with you, we have repeatedly directed an evil eye towards food supplements on this blog site, but we think it has been fully justified. Or more than justified reading about the latest findings.

Yes we have written about food supplements before, being it herbal supplements or micronutrients. But are you heeding the warnings? Well, it doesn’t seem so since the food supplements industry is going from strength to strength. And no one is checking what they are selling, neither governments nor the sales channels. There are some feeble attempts and that is what prompted this new blog.

Major US food retailers caught out

Thanks to the New York State Attorney General’s Office four national US retailers have been caught out selling dietary supplements that were fraudulent and in many cases contaminated with unlisted ingredients. The office bought 78 bottles of herbal supplements and analysed the products using DNA bar coding, a type of genetic fingerprinting that has previously been used to detect fraud in the seafood industry.

Tests on popular brands of herbal supplements sold by Walmart, Walgreens, Target and GNC showed that roughly four out of five of the products contained none of the herbs listed on their labels. That’s right, only 20% of the products actually contained the main ingredient named on the label. Not a trace in the other 80%. How can that happen?

You’re sold cheap fillers

The supplements actually contained little more than cheap fillers like rice and house plants, or substances that could be hazardous to people with food allergies. For example, five out of six samples from GNC’s signature “Herbal Plus” brand of supplements were either unrecognisable or a substance other than what they claimed to be. Pills labelled ginkgo biloba contained only rice, asparagus and spruce, an ornamental plant commonly used for Christmas decorations.

And three out of six samples from Target’s “Up and Up” store brand including ginkgo biloba, St. John’s wort and the valerian root sleep aid tested negative for the herbs listed on their labels. Instead the pills contained powdered rice, beans, peas and wild carrots. A popular store brand of ginseng pills at Walgreens, promoted for “physical endurance and vitality,” contained only powdered garlic and rice. At Walmart, ginkgo biloba, a Chinese plant promoted as a memory enhancer, contained little more than powdered radish, houseplants and wheat, despite a claim on the label that the product was wheat- and gluten-free.

About time that someone checked

The investigation came as welcome support to health experts who have long complained about the quality and safety of dietary supplements. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that companies verify that every supplement they manufacture is safe and accurately labeled. But the system essentially operates on the honour code. Under a 1994 federal law, supplements are exempt from the FDA’s strict approval process for prescription drugs, with little oversight as a result. The situation is much the same in most other regions of the world.

The FDA has previously briefly targeted some individual supplements found to contain dangerous ingredients. But the action taken by the authority in the New York State is the first time that a law enforcement agency has threatened the biggest retail and drugstore chains with legal action for selling what it said were deliberately misleading herbal products. The attorney general sent the four retailers cease-and-desist letters demanding that they explain what procedures they use to verify the ingredients in their supplements. I suppose the answer is none!

Can this be right?

The test results are so extreme that the failure to detect some plants even when they were present could be because the manufacturing process had destroyed their DNA. However, this is unlikely since plenty of DNA from unlisted ingredients were detected. So the burden is now with the industry to prove what is in their supplements.

No free lunch for micronutrient pills either

A balanced diet is much better than popping pills (Photo: Christina Roervik)

A balanced diet is much better than popping pills (Photo: Christina Roervik)

And as if this is not enough, a new salvo has been directed towards micronutrient pills. In a recent article the authors found it hard to reconcile the concepts of the Western diet and overconsumption with the risk of micronutrient deficiencies. Sure there are people with bad diet habits, but they are not the supplement customers.

While the role of micronutrients in the prevention or treatment of diseases (including cancer and type 2 diabetes) is of interest, a key driver for the vitamins and supplement market is their advertised potential to optimise health and performance in already healthy individuals. The authors claim that the evidence so far indicates that multivitamin and mineral supplements offer no health protection, increase all-cause mortality, and risk of cancers in some subgroups.

They point out that our bodies are incredibly well adapted to handle different levels of nutrient intakes and that we have mechanisms that help us deal with shortfalls and surpluses of most micronutrients. For a true deficiency to occur, it requires a long time of dietary deficiency. They also point out that more is not always a good thing and that supplementation with high levels of vitamins and minerals can in fact confer risk.

Avoid wishful thinking and go with science

Clearly, being concerned enough about your health to buy food supplements, while no doubt full of hope, isn’t the best place to be spending your money. A nutritionally balanced diet is a much safer way to achieve sufficiency than buying bottles full of wishful thinking.

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2 thoughts on “Don’t throw your money away on food supplements

  1. Thank you for this important, but unfortunately, unheeded warning. I would just add that many consumers buy supplements online (see Amazon for example) and these are subject to less control than those sold at retail outlets. Chances are that supplements sold on the Internet are even more fraudulent and more dangerous. It is one thing to throw your money away, but another to put your health at risk.

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