When buying any form of food product, it is important to know what is actually in it. Is it really an apple, or real apple juice, or real apple pectin? The answer is generally quite obvious when we look at whole foods, but it gets more complicated as we move toward concentrated components, such as B-vitamins, omega 3 oils, and herbal extracts.
Why is this Important?
We would not buy or eat foods if we weren’t sure of what we were getting. What if that cucumber was only 70% cucumber, and 30% random additives? Nobody would be fooled if they were to eat these foods as the taste, texture, smell, and appearance would be blatantly affected; these foods would never leave the store shelf. Supplements are quite different, and are often designed to minimize the taste, smell, and texture of the actual product. You certainly can’t tell by looking at a capsule whether it is (or isn’t) what the label is claiming it to be.
This is important for two reasons. First, we are purchasing the supplements to achieve a specific goal, and we expect a specific benefit or effect from our product – these benefits require the supplement to contain the ingredients that it claims to contain, and it can be very difficult to assess this given our massive variety of available supplement products. Second, we are trusting the supplement companies to have made the product in a clean and controlled manner, while avoiding contamination from toxic chemical compounds, bacterial growths or infestations, heavy metals, or other potentially harmful ingredients. Again, this is very hard to verify by using only our 5 senses, and we cannot simply rely on the company to be honest and have our best interests at the forefront – especially not when there is money involved.
Proof of the Massive Variety of Supplement Quality
The following is a great international example, taken directly from a 2011 article in the Journal of Pharmacy & Pharmacology. These guys know their chemicals, and they know testing. They compared what was claimed to be in supplement bottles (label claim), to what was actually in the bottle. They purchased actual on-the-shelf products and tested them for label claim accuracy. If the actual product contained between 95% and 105% of what the label claim showed, the product was considered acceptable and given a “pass.” The range of 95% – 105% allowed for a reasonable amount of wiggle room with product amounts so they didn’t need to be exactly perfect.
Unfortunately, the results varied from reasonable to horrendous, with some products showing very low or even 0% of the actual active ingredient when tested. This is worrisome, as it points out that many people have paid money and literally received 0% of what they paid for, and even more so because the supplements were filled with a mystery compound rather than an active ingredient. Given the undisclosed compounds that were used, it is hard to know if the products were even safe for consumption.
Here is the actual chart. To improve the visibility of relevant supplements, I colour-coded the Canadian products blue, and the American products yellow. Note that the brand names and specific product names were not given in this study, and the products tested were the ones most commonly sold in their respective areas.
I hope this information has provided a new perspective on supplements, and why it is important to question the materials used in the product. This brings us to the bottom line:
How can I Know what is Actually in my Supplements?
These are the questions worth asking! Can you prove that these supplements:
a) Actually have the active ingredients, in the claimed forms and amounts listed?
b) Don’t have ingredients that aren’t listed, especially regarding potentially harmful contaminants?
The best answer is simple. Choose supplements from companies that prioritize testing of their ingredients & finished products, ideally by using a 3rd party testing lab. This is how we can ensure that the products are what they claim to be. Supplement companies that do this testing usually make their testing results accessible on their websites. In fact, some of the companies I use allow you to search via the barcode number on any bottle that you buy, so you can find the results of the specific batch that you have in front of you. I love this, and you should too, as this offers another layer of comfort that what you are holding in front of you (or what I am recommending for you) will be both safe, and effective.
Take Home Message
- All supplements are not created equal, and replacing one for another can greatly change the effects of the supplements
- Choosing the right supplement sources can be the difference between wasting your money, and having significant and positive health effects
- Supplement companies that offer product testing (ideally third party testing) and transparent results are preferable, and help to ensure that you are getting what you are paying for
- When your naturopathic doctor (ND) recommends one supplement over another, remember that these factors play an important role, and ask questions if you are curious or unsure. Changing to products that are not tested for quality & purity can take away from the intended benefits of the product.
- Just as important as selecting a product with proven and accurate ingredient labels, is actually selecting the right kind of supplement (Vitamin B6, or vitamin B9, or Rhodiola, or probiotics…) that fits given your unique needs and circumstances.