How Do I Know If My Dietary Supplements Are Any Good?
For decades now, documentarists have seen the supplement industry as easy pickings. We’ve all seen the TV news magazines’ “hard hitting” reporting or glossy print exposés on the false claims of some in the industry. Their finds are almost always the same, the unsuspecting average citizen is being sold snake oil with zero science and no clinical testing or trials to back up the far-fetched claims of the makers.
In some cases, the reporting hits the mark, and outs those making false claims, or worse, putting people in danger with untested or adulterated ingredients. But that’s certainly not the complete picture, as these instances represent just a small minority in a rather huge industry. Be that as it may, the unfortunate reality is that these isolated cases have sensationalized the problem to a point where, for some people, the entire dietary supplement space is often perceived as disingenuous, lacking science and unsafe.
That’s is simply not true, but what is true is that not all supplements are created equal. So what do the good guys do?
According to a report featured on Natural Products INSIDER, a B-to-B website covering the science and formulation of ingredients, two-thirds of dietary supplement manufacturers surveyed perform clinical studies and trials to support their supplements’ health claims. Some companies invest in individual research for their specific formulation, and others partnering to share the cost burden for the studies and trials.
In other cases, makers don’t do their own research, but cite the clinical tests done by the suppliers they source. This is not ideal, as it does not take into context what else is being formulated with those ingredients, but at least it sets a solid foundation for the claims. In worse cases, makers are doing no testing or using “burrowed science” and riding the wave of other’s research which they position as their own. Obviously, these two types are the dietary supplement companies to avoid (and as i see these companies, i am going to expose them).
So, how do we as consumers tell the difference? If you’re looking to Uncle Sam; don’t. The government will fine companies for bad ingredients or blatantly false claims, but the feds don’t insist on testing as the FDA would for prescription drug (covered in my last article: 71% Of Americans Take Dietary Supplements). So, unless you are willing to research each product on your own, there is no method to quickly tell who the good guys are. One exception is the private label group within the burgeoning Amazon Elements engine, which does a good job of sharing the “traceability” behind the supplements sold there. That’s great, but e-commerce only represents 15% of dietary supplement sales (and Amazon accounts for 35% of that number). The vast majority of us are still buying from physical stores, at least for now.
The good news from the industry report cited above is that most companies are, in fact, investing to ensure their claims are legitimate. That said, I wondered about the institutions that provide those clinical trials. Two methods are commonly used: First, many of the supplement companies work with academic researchers in universities. This is a great way to provide reliable assurances on product performance. Secondly, a growing group works with contract research organizations (CROs), which provide full service clinical testing to substantiate the claims of makers (or dispute them – but consumers wouldn’t see those studies as they send manufacturers back to the drawing board).
Clinical work is only as good as the university or CRO doing the work. So, it’s back to the web to understand how each does its work and the qualifications of those leading the testing. Take for example, KGK Science, a leading CRO provider to the industry. KGK is a Canadian based company with an impressive list of researchers who have deep chops in the nutrition category, headed up by Najla Guthrie, president and CEO of the firm (whom I met when I was President of the Global Health and Nutrition Network at Informa). Interestingly, the approach outlined on the company’s website looks more like a pharmaceutical process than one would expect in the nutraceutical space. This is what you want to see in a CRO.
But what about the business of testing? According to the KGK Science site, they provide: “full service clinical research solutions and operate an in-house clinic from where the trials are conducted.” Further, “KGK will complete the entire process on your(the supplement maker) behalf from protocol development, regulatory approvals, recruiting and seeing patients, managing the data and writing the Comprehensive Final Report.” That’s soup to nuts, so realistically, if a dietary supplement or nutraceutical product does not have clinical testing, it isn’t due to a lack of availability.
Given that, let’s look at Nature Made, one of the largest supplement manufactures, to see where, how and if their clinical studies claims stack up. In my quick study, I went directly to the Omega-3 section of their site since it’s one of the most popular supplements in the market. One of the first things I noticed about Nature Made Omega 3 was the packaging—where, at the top of the box, it claims the product has been clinically studied. Turning to the website’s product details section, I found it breaks down the science behind the supplement, showing diagrams of how the supplement is absorbed into the body.
Further, Nature Made has an entire section on their site featuring their clinical studies and reports, along with links to the published version, and “key findings” from each. It’s a great resource, however, I had to go find it. It’s a great differentiator and it should be significantly easier to find. But if you’re a concerned consumer, the information is there to be had.
So, as I wrap this article up, a few things to keep in mind:
1. Two-thirds of dietary supplement manufacturers are investing in clinical research and trials.
2. They are doing this research through academic institutions and through Contract Research Organizations like KGK Science and others.
3. Even though supplements carry the same name (Omega-3 Fish Oil, for example) some of the manufacturers will have invested in clinical testing and trials, and others may not have.
4. An emerging trend is to showcase the “traceability” of quality and claims in an easily accessible way, e.g. Amazon Elements.
5. We as consumers should research manufacturers when deciding which supplements to use.
In my next post, I will look back into the supply chain to discuss how a few ingredient companies are setting the bar for science and innovation.
Please note that this information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. We insist that you always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical/health condition or treatment and before initiating a new health care regime. Do not disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on the STYR app or on www.MyNutritioniQ.com.
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