What's Wrong with the Supplement Industry?

Posted on 2/20/2015 by Dr. den Boer

In a follow-up to their article about the New York supplement withdrawals, the New York Times published another article detailing exactly what the Attorney General’s lab tests found. 

The Supplements

The most ubiquitous finding is that nearly all of the supplements did not contain any of their supposed active ingredient.  Out of the four brands and twenty-four products tested, two brands of garlic supplements and one brand of saw palmetto supplement actually contained these ingredients.  One brand of Echinacea found Echinacea in “most, but not all” tests.  All other supplements tested negative for their active ingredients.

The second most common finding was the presence of rice in nearly all the supplements.  This isn’t terribly surprising, as rice flour or rice bran are commonly used as fillers in the supplement industry - a resonable practice so long as it's on the label, and the rice has been tested for contaminants such as arsenic.  Rather less intuitively, over a third of all supplements contained some amount of Dracaena, a popular tropical houseplant.  Though non-toxic, Dracaena also has no known medicinal properties.  One wonders if these capsules were filled with the remnants of unsold greenhouse stock!

Dracaena plants growing in a greenhouse.
Image from www.Florpagano.com

Finally, the tests found the presence of wheat in one out of six supplements tested.  This is a serious finding, given that wheat both contains gluten, which is important for many people to avoid, and is a common allergen.  Walmart’s Spring Valley brand was the largest offender here, with half of their products testing positive for wheat.  To investigate whether this ingredient may be disclosed on their label, we visited the Walmart website and looked up the offending products.  Each one was clearly advertised as containing:

-No Gluten
-No Yeast
-No Wheat

Unfortunately, this is only the tip of the iceberg.  Much has also been written about, and little attention paid to, other significant quality issues in the industry.  For example, another New York Times article from five years ago addresses problems not even tested for here - problems as serious as pesticide contamination, bacterial contamination, and heavy metal toxicity.
The Problem
The economic motivation to make supplements this way is clear.  Rice is cheap.  Herbs are expensive.  Testing those herbs for potency, safety, and contamination is very expensive. 

A brief search to compare bulk retail prices for common supplement ingredients showed that rice can be purchased for approximately one dollar per pound.  From a fairly reputable bulk supplier, herbs and other active ingredients start at about ten dollars per pound for relatively easy-to-grow ingredients like garlic and St. John’s Wort.  Somewhat less common ingredients such as Echinacea root start at twice that, and a few ingredients, such as ginseng root, can easily fetch one hundred and fifty dollars for a single pound.  By switching rice out for even the cheapest of active ingredients, manufacturers (or their ingredient suppliers) can cut their expenses by huge margins. 

Naturally, this sort of fraud is a temptation in nearly every industry.  As such, we have government institutions such as the FDA to make sure companies don’t put unsafe things in our food and don’t lie about what’s in them.  Their role is to ensure that what a company says on a label - whether it be a food, a drug, or a supplement - is accurate, and that everything is made in a safe and hygienic environment.  Though no system can catch everything, this works quite well in the carefully watched food and drug industries.  Technically, supplements are governed under the same laws that govern foods – they need to be labeled accurately and must contain no unlabeled adulterants.  However, supplements have always been a low priority for the FDA and other regulatory bodies, so little effort is made to enforce the rules.  Supplement companies know this and some take full advantage of this unregulated industry.

However, now that supplement use is rapidly growing in the United States, we are seeing the beginnings of better quality control and oversight in the industry. In the meantime, though, the quality of most supplements on the shelves is still deplorable.  It is necessary for the consumer to know that quality has informed the entire production process, from plant to shelf.  Next week we’ll be taking a look at what options already exist for the patient or consumer who wants to take their supplements in confidence of efficacy and purity.  We’ll also take a look at the companies that know how to market well but lack in quality.  In short, we’re going to create a navigation guide, a plan of action, to get you on the best track to vital health while avoiding the many pitfalls faced by health-conscious supplement and nutraceutical users.
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