It’s no secret that supplements are subjected to far less scrutiny than any other medical tool, with even alternative medicines receiving more attention from scientists and the press in recent years. However, analysis released by Consumer Reports in the wake of their investigation into creating a non-viable, yet marketable, supplement, shows that there are few reasons to put stake in their claims.
After hearing numerous horror stories about the clinical and at-home use of supplements, Consumer Reports decided to see just how easy it was to create and market a supplement . Using well-established myths, they developed an all natural weight loss formula filled to the brim with caffeine and diuretics. Despite the common medical knowledge that these things would have little to no impact on one’s actual fat content, the product was dubbed Thinitol to hint not-so-subtly towards the opposite.
The eighty prototypical capsules, manufactured on the editor’s desk over the course of approximately 10 minutes without any sort of sanitary safeguards. Though it’s not necessarily typical for the conditions of a supplement company, there are no real regulations on how they’re made. The FDA uses what they call their “Current Good Manufacturing Practices” in trying to force compliance, but as this article from the Consumerist  says:
“It’s like a needle in a haystack,” Kunes says of the FDA’s efforts to track all of the known supplement manufacturers. “They’re trying to check up on all of these different companies who are producing supplement to see that they’re producing them the way they’re supposed to be produced.”
With a sleek package promising to “Support Metabolism & Boost Energy,” the team learned that it was terrifyingly easy to stay within the letter of the law throughout their journey. Though they thankfully never shipped, the authors readily point out they could have by filling out a page long form to register with the FDA.
The Report on Supplements
The report itself, aptly entitled “Supplements Can Make You Sick” , focuses largely on the gaps in legislation and regulatory agencies’ failings. With poor monitoring of the manufacturing conditions, the absurd cases of negligence are beginning to accrue. The article discusses a particular case where a newborn was given a probiotic from a well-known supplements provider as part of their neonatal care. It wasn’t until the child had already died that the FDA had launched an inquiry, with their findings as morose as they were obvious:
…[T]he probiotic was contaminated. The FDA tested unopened containers from the same batch of probiotic given to Calvin and discovered the same fungus that had infected his intestines. Certain lots of the product—ABC Dophilus Powder, made by the supplement manufacturer Solgar—were recalled from pharmacies and drugstores across the U.S.
Beyond recklessly endangering people with a lack of quality control, it’s also well known that supplements don’t have to provide proof of effectiveness. The Thinitol example showcases it greatly: without providing any proof, and by covering it in buzz words, the team was able to provide a reasonable-looking and fully legal supplement. It would never be subjected to a test unless it was an obvious cause of death.
All in all, it’s a good reminder that there’s no shortcut to a healthy lifestyle and that eating right, exercise, and managing stress healthily can’t be substituted for pills or powders. This isn’t to say that all supplements are outright bad, but, as always, it’s important to ensure that they’re well-researched, cleanly manufactured, and will actually cause the effects you desire.
For more on this check out the original consumer reports statements here and here; or you can check out The Consumerist’s elongated article on Thinitol here! Or, for more information about overused and ineffective treatments, check out our articles on statins!
Anyone Can Make & Market A Dietary Supplement, Including Consumer Reports