Supplement Claims: You Don’t Get What You Paid ForFalse advertising has become an integral part of the supplement industry. It’s the reason health experts often label supplement regulation as the Wild West.
A 2013 quality assessment of herbal supplement ingredients found that up to one third of products tested did NOT contain the main herb on its label…And it seems not much has changed since. Earlier this year tests conducted by the New York State attorney general’s office found that 4 out of 5 store brand herbal supplements didn’t contain any of the herb on the label. Should we be surprised by this ongoing fraud? Well, no… Nutrition supplements are actually exempt from any regulatory monitoring. While prescription drugs must undergo rigorous safety and effectiveness testing before being approved, over-the-counter supplements (non-prescription) are automatically classified as safe. Manufacturers are not required to prove their effectiveness, purity or potency either, which explains why most simply don’t work.
Four Misleading Health Supplement ClaimsThese regulatory loopholes – alongside powerful marketing and surging global demand – has led to increasingly more eccentric and misguided supplement health claims. Frankly, claims are really starting to get out of hand. Here are 4 examples, two of which are completely mainstream:
Supplement Claim #1: All Natural Defense Against EbolaAccording to NoBola, this multivitamin can help protect you from the deadly Ebola virus. Its unique blend of three “anti-Ebola fighting compounds” claims to boost immunity and rejuvenate cells so you won’t be so easy for Ebola to corrupt. And all for just $79.97 per month. Talk about a first-world slap in the face for those who live in West Africa. Never mind the fact that your body’s ability to naturally fight off the virus is genetic. Or that in America – where there have been a total of 4 cases – you are 4 times more likely to be killed by a shark than contract Ebola. For the record, the other reported “natural” cure is the venom of three different snakes. Taking the term snake oil up a notch.
Supplement Claim #2: Protection From The Long-Term Harm Of VaccinesVaccination can be horrible. Did you know it leaves your child vulnerable, requiring support for detoxification, immune function, and a healthy brain? Yeah, I didn’t know that either. Neither did the infectious disease specialists, pediatric immunologists, and epidemiologists who develop the vaccines and immunization schedule. But that’s what Vaccishield, a $27.99 tub of multivitamins, claims to support. Now it’s true that a tiny segment of vaccine patients can experience adverse reactions. That’s why the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has a thorough list of who should not be vaccinated. Just what exactly Vaccishield “shields” your child from, and how, remains to be seen though… And if we’re being honest, never will be seen. So how do people get away with selling pixie dust like this? Making a specific health claim – such as “protects you against cancer” – requires some scientific evidence and attracts monitoring by the FDA (Food and Drugs Administration). But if you only make fluffy structure-function claims – such as “supports health during vaccination” – then it’s permitted… Because it doesn’t actually mean anything. Buying Vaccishield in case of vaccine side-effects is like buying a flying carpet in case your plane crashes. The latter being slightly more useful.
Supplement Claim #3: “Clinically Proven” Weight Loss ProductsWeight loss is hard. Manipulating desperate people is easy. That’s why “clinically proven” weight loss remedies continue to appear in small containers. Problem is, most of these products base their claims on one single, questionable study. Take Raspberry Ketone supplements for example, which contain 0% raspberries by the way. Dr. Oz – who is a legitimate cardiothoracic surgeon – declared them “The number one miracle in a bottle to burn your fat,” even though the only weight loss research was a single rodent study. Researchers found mice on a fatty diet gained more weight than mice on a fatty diet that included a huge dose of raspberry ketones. In other words, both groups of mice got fatter, but the ones eating raspberry ketones at 100 times the recommended amount got less fat. Even NoBola is more convincing than that. Another less obvious example is IsaLean Weight Loss Shakes by Isagenix. Use of this product was shown to be positive in one published weight loss study, which is not surprising given it was self-funded. After 8 weeks of poorly controlled dieting (which included 24 consecutive hours per week of fasting for some reason) those having two IsaLean Shakes per day lost 2.2 lbs (1 kg) more than those on a regular diet. In other words, drinking two fewer bottles of water aids weight loss just as effectively as a 2-month diet that includes intermittent fasting and 96 IsaLean Shakes (valued at over $350). Isagenix would have paid up to $2000 to get this study officially published. It cost less than half of that to publish the “clinically proven” benefits of eating chocolate to lose weight.
Supplement Claim #4. Cleanse or Detox Your InsidesDetoxes and cleanses… The lazy, last line of defense for the worried well. Unfortunately though, detox products and cleanses are completely useless. There is a total of zero studies published in the medical literature showing they have any clinical effects whatsoever. A detox diet plan will not reduce bloating, clean out your colon, boost your liver or eliminate love handles. Even if you just returned from vacation, Vani. In fact, the only thing they do cleanse is your wallet. To clarify, detoxification is a very real thing in the world of medicine. Overdoses of alcohol, drugs and exposure to poison are serious medical conditions that require detoxification. But proponents of a 14-day detox tea, 21-day cleanse, or a cringe-worthy Coffee Enema will never be able to explain what “toxins” they remove or how they remove them. Fortunately for those who prefer to drink their coffee, the human body has several highly sophisticated and self-regulating detoxification systems and pathways – namely the kidneys and liver – so you don’t have to worry about so-called “toxins”…Especially those found in broccoli.
How to Know What Supplements WorkNot all supplements are based on false claims of course. Depending on your personal situation, a handful of varieties are certainly effective. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, have a particular medical condition or diagnosed nutrient deficiency, then supplements can literally be a life-saver. In these instances, trust your doctor or dietitian to be knowledgeable about what supplements are specifically best for you and your condition. On the other hand, voluntarily taking supplements to optimize health or fight-off illness requires us to pay more attention. This is when a far more conservative, critical approach is necessary. A good place to start your research is this visualisation of popular health supplements. Taking it a step further, search the Examine supplement database for an unbiased analyses of how the scientific evidence stacks up. However, even with these resources, the reality is that it can be difficult to balance good scientific judgement against the romantic health claims of a well-marketed pill. In order to become fool-proof, consider these warning signs before making your final decision:
- Beware of extravagant health claims about the product, even those made by a medical professional. If it sounds too good to be true, it is.
- Beware of celebrity endorsements and testimonials. Financially-fuelled recommendations do not establish a supplement’s efficacy or safety, even if the celebrity means well. The same goes for drug endorsements, by the way.
- Beware of meaningless claims that can be made without any regulation. This goes back to the examples listed above and includes terms like supports health, improves vitality, general wellbeing, all-natural, clinically proven, and other fluffy but seductive claims.
- Beware the idea that if some is good, more is better. Take vitamins for example, which we obtain from eating a wide range of whole foods. Study after study shows that multivitamin supplements are absolutely useless for those who are otherwise healthy… There are no nutritional gaps to fill.
Newmaster SG, Grguric M, Shanmughanandhan D, Ramalingam S, Ragupathy S. DNA barcoding detects contamination and substitution in North American herbal products. BMC Med. 2013 Oct 11;11:222. doi: 10.1186/1741-7015-11-222.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Questions and Answers on Dietary Supplements: http://www.fda.gov/Food/DietarySupplements/QADietarySupplements/ucm191930.htm
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Who Should NOT Get Vaccinated with these Vaccines?: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd-vac/should-not-vacc.htm
Morimoto C, Satoh Y, Hara M, Inoue S, Tsujita T, Okuda H. Anti-obese action of raspberry ketone. Life Sci. 2005 May 27;77(2):194-204. Epub 2005 Feb 25.
Klempel MC, Kroeger CM, Bhutani S, Trepanowski JF, Varady KA. Intermittent fasting combined with calorie restriction is effective for weight loss and cardio-protection in obese women. Nutr J. 2012 Nov 21;11:98. doi: 10.1186/1475-2891-11-98.