The problem with supplements

You, the person reading this: maybe you heard somewhere that a supplement – say fish oil – might be good for your health. Hopefully, you’ve gone to the doctor as supplements can have side effects as bad as prescription medicines. For example, fish oil can have blood-thinning effects. If you are on blood thinners, you should talk to your doctor.

So, if you’re OK with that warning, and cleared by your doc, and/or know the hazards because you’ve read real information from established medical sites that have professionally reviewed articles that tell you about the studies done, the possible benefits, as well as the potential risks, then you’ve done the required ‘adulting’ to self-administer drugs, because that’s what a lot of supplements are. To me, this is a requirement for any supplement I take. It is going into my body, and I should know what it might do – and potential side effects that might occur I wouldn’t associate it with unless I did the research, or interactions that could occur. Jeez – the blood pressure medication I take warns against eating grapefruit because the combination makes the skin susceptible to sunburn! How would you know that unless you did research? Oh – and Tagamet (the stomach medicine) can cause men to grow breasts so if you’re a guy and want to chance a pair of man-boobs, go ahead. (Ladies, apparently it can effect you as well: this article entitled ‘Woman Bothered by Bigger Breasts‘ mentions Tagamet.) It also might help cure certain cancers. In certain situations, maybe bigger breasts are ok.

Then which one to buy?

In the US, supplements are unregulated. They go through no testing by the FDA and their claims are not verified by the FDA. While occasionally companies are shut down and products taken off the market, the vast majority that line supermarket shelves and Amazon are ‘buyer beware’. Counterfeits abound. Years ago someone tested multiple large chain store brands of ginko biloba and found they contained zero ginko biloba – they were filled with ground up dried weeds or something like that. Many fly-by-night supplement companies that have screaming labels that claim they are ‘fat-burning’ have been taken off the market after someone – not the government necessarily – tested them and found actual regulated pharmaceuticals in them.

Folks, this is why we regulate a lot of things. We say we hate regulations and don’t want them, but then people expect unregulated supplement companies to do the ‘right thing’ in a culture where now it seems we hold in high esteem the people who can get away with the cleverest scams.

Supplements are an example of an unregulated market and shows how we need to accept responsibility as part of that freedom. A lot of people forget they go hand-in-hand. That freedom from regulation keeps the product inexpensive compared to regulated products, but this freedom comes with the responsibility of knowing the risks before you start ingesting substances that supposedly have a health benefit.

I don’t want to have to ask my doctor for a prescription for supplements. I like this freedom – but I don’t pretend there’s no downside.

Since I don’t have a lab, I try to buy ‘USP Verified‘ supplements. They actually test the products 3 ways: does it contain what it says it does? Does it contain the right dose? Can it be absorbed, or does it pass through your body intact (usually pills are tested this way). They do not verify the claims.

The problem here is this testing is very expensive and few companies think it makes business sense, I guess, to go through this verification. Or they have something to hide. Again, you don’t have a lab, nor can afford to send products to labs for testing.

That leaves you with only trust to go on.

When I buy a supplement, I ask myself a few questions:

  1. How easy is this supplement to obtain? Simple minerals that are pretty cheap are more likely legit than obscure plants that might be in supplements that charge an arm and a leg.
  2. Is one particular brand way cheaper than all the others? Competitors should be more or less the same price. If you find one outlier way lower in price, it might indicate that the quality differs.
  3. Is the product from an established company that’s been around for a while. Carlsons, for example, has been around since 1965. While I buy their Fish Oil, I’m not recommending them, nor do I make a penny if you choose to buy something from them, but the point I’m making is they have a reputation – and that reputation could be damaged if it turns out that they are misrepresenting their products. I would think they have more to lose than some fly-by-night named ‘Doctor’s Preferred Choice Original Nature Quality Products’ (I just made that name up).
  4. Be extra wary of weird concoctions with loud labels that blurt out in large letters some miracle effect. If it sounds too good to be true, it is.

I’ll leave you with this: many years ago, I heard a story about a person who ran a supplement division of a large pharmaceutical company. Their company acquired a vitamin company. When they audited the company’s processes, the products marked kosher sometimes weren’t kosher and the products marked organic sometimes weren’t organic. His advice was to only buy supplements from companies that also produce pharmaceuticals because they are used to strict standards, and you are more likely to get quality products – note I did not say guaranteed – just more likely.