About a year ago, I was approached by a “ruby executive” involved in a multi-level marketing scheme. I was asked to lunch by a lady– we’ll call her Sally– who had attended several of my cooking classes with her husband. It was out of the ordinary, but welcome, so we exchanged numbers.
When I arrived at the Vietnamese Restaurant, slightly off the beaten path, I was introduced to an extra diner and her trusty sidekick, a jar of arginine-based supplement. The woman had wiry gray hair and an intense chronic stare; we’ll call her Marge.
She started right in “I couldn’t leave my couch for nine months– doctors couldn’t understand and told me I was faking; Arginine saved my life.”
“Wow!” I marveled. “Could I look at that jar for a minute?”
“It’s very popular in Japan.” Marge pulled out a stack of CDs, brochures and home-made promotional materials as I inspected the label. The product was little more than an amino acid supplement.
There are certain rules, detailed below, that to some extent limit the marketing and claims a supplement bottle or associated literature can make, but the lady also created her own promotional materials, with the company logo, claiming the Arginine product was a cure-all for cancer, diabetes and lupus, among other things.
After I was shown an overly complicated promotion scheme and roped into an hour and a half conversation about “the product” and Marge’s battle with toxic mold, I explained that I was too busy working on my degree to sell any time soon, but took all the promotional materials and immediately sent them to a consumer watchdog group. I never saw Sally again.
It’s not that the supplement was worthless- maybe it could have been useful for some purposes. The point is that arginine will not cure cancer or diabetes and there is no way for me to know if it actually contains arginine or inert filler contaminated with mercury and lead.
Much of the information to follow is provided by the FDA (governmental organization):
The law regulating dietary supplement is the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which was signed in 1994 by President Clinton.
A supplement can be defined as follows (from FDA site):
– a product (other than tobacco) that is intended to supplement the diet that bears or contains one or more of the following dietary ingredients: a vitamin, a mineral, an herb or other botanical, an amino acid, a dietary substance for use by man to supplement the diet by increasing the total daily intake, or a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, extract, or combinations of these ingredients.
– taken as a pill, capsule, tablet, or liquid form.
– not promoted as a typical food or the only item to be eaten in a meal or diet.
– labeled as a “dietary supplement.”
– includes new drugs, antibiotics, or licensed biologic previously marketed as a dietary supplement or food before approval, certification, or license as a drug
Because of DSHEA, the FDA takes a hands-off approach until someone dies, become seriously hurt, or an important lobby works against it. The FDA does not have the responsibility, time or resources to test, approve, check, validate, ensure the safety of a supplement, or otherwise protect you in any way from those who are trying to make a buck in the $8.5 billion/year supplement industry.
The FDA has approved very few compounds and foods for “health claims” that link consuming a particular ingredient with a reduction in disease risk. Sometimes even the approved claims have somewhat limited supporting research. Supplements, on the other hand, often include “function/structure claims” which do not link the food to a particular condition, but sound remarkably like health claims to a consumer. Examples include “increases stamina” and “supports immune system.” Supplement companies have to do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to put claims like this on a bottle and sell it to you for $19.95.
Additionally, the FDA is not required by law to investigate or record any reports they receive of injuries or illnesses that occur as a result of taking a particular supplement.
The following link is a great consumer resource that details supplements that 1) Have a much higher dose than expected 2) have not a trace of the active components listed 3) are contaminated/adulterated 4) other nonsense; and 5)actually not bad afterall:
Does this mean all supplements and supplement companies are evil? Of course not! All supplement companies was you to buy their products but that’s just business. In some sense, US residents are at an advantage because we can choose to take supplements if we think they would be helpful in achieving our goals. If each supplement had to be tested for safety and effectiveness before going to market, much less would be available.
So what’s the best approach to buying supplements? Do your homework- there are experts out there who dedicate their careers to figuring which supplements are safe and useful.
Listen to people who have an educated clue and block the meathead and toxic mold lady– your body will thank you.
Also, buy supplement from companies that have something to loose– consumer advocacy groups test the products of large supplement companies. If their products were found to be contaminated or lacking active ingredients, the companies’ reputations would be ruined. Avoid fly by night companies that you’ve never heard of selling products you’ve never heard of. Additionally, beware of the following:
– Cures: if a company markets this way, the company will not exist for long, since it is illegal to market in this way. Your long-term interests and long-term business are not the priority for these companies. Marge’s claims concerning cancer, diabetes, and lupus were a clear red flags.
– Words like “scientific breakthrough,” “miraculous cure,” “exclusive product,” “secret ingredient” or “ancient remedy.” If it’s ancient and useful, you can find it somewhere else– move on. Also, some companies will sell an herb from the same genus (scientific classification) but not the same species as the active product, so the product bottled and sold does not have the active ingredients. For example active Hoodia and yohimbe are hard to find in this country. Siberian ginseng is not the same as Korean ginseng.
– Overly-scientific language in a non-scientific magazine or brochure– the marketing is designed to impress you without saying much of anything.
– Personal testimonials: remember, NO ONE is checking that story.
– Pressurized sales: large supplement companies don’t need to sell you their product right this second because they are going to be selling it for a while. Look for companies and products that are trying to make you a repeat costumer.
– Promises of no-risk “money-back guarantees.” The company won’t exist in 30 days- try taking that to small claims court!
If you spend time researching dietary supplements and supplement companies, you may be able to find useful products; however, there is no magic bullet! A diet high in fruits and vegetables and a plan that includes exercise are requirements for healthy living!