Is Your Supplement Expert Really An Expert?
There are two main reasons we get so ranty around here about the supplement industry. The first is product related; quality control is practically non-existent and as a result, people aren’t getting the wellness experience they are paying for. There are quality brands out there, and there are supplements that will help you live a happier and healthier life, but we can’t assume all products are equal. Because there is no universal marker of quality and no organization with their sleeves rolled up, doing the work to ensure all products are what they say they are, we must be relentless and guarded in our current supplement reality.
The same care you take in selecting the brands and products you buy must be used in selecting the experts you trust. The second reason we have high blood pressure is the sheer volume of charlatans in this industry, promoting their special product or method to give people miracle results. This army of experts, in reality, are modern day snake oil salespeople. They’re convincing, they’re confident, and they may even have some credentials. In many cases, their advice falls in the outer edge of scientific accuracy. Some will even ignore reality, deceive you, and profit.
A fun, behind-the-scenes factoid: It is nearly impossible to get a merchant account to accept credit cards for supplement sales online. There are so many fly-by-night, pop-up businesses with experts that make outrageous claims and defraud their customers that the credit card industry has to do all but a colonoscopy to ensure you are legit. If the risk is high enough for credit card companies to use caution, why not us customers?
We know who these experts are. They attract a lot of attention. But fake experts in the supplement industry don’t need to be the ones with a TV show, blog, or a million dollar brand. The experts spreading misinformation infiltrate all the way down to the local level.
It is my belief that most supplement salespeople - those in local health food stores and pharmacies - are ill-equipped to advise customers on wellness choices. I have an advanced, clinical degree in Pharmacy, and I understand compounds and how they interact with the body better than most here - and yet I am gun-shy with my advice. That caution is not shown often enough, even by people who should be overly cautious.
We’ve seen the impact the misleading statements people make in health food stores first hand; it is a financial and health-related risk we take when we listen to untrained experts.
I don’t really blame these health food or supplement store employees. They are passionate about health and wellness, want a job following that passion, and get to work. It’s the system that is the problem. Store owners want sales. There’s no certification around providing advice or guidance. There is no tangible way to hold people’s feet to the fire. If I give bad advice, my license could suffer. Pharmacy technicians need certification in many states just to bill and fill prescriptions. But in supplement land, literally anyone can help you choose products…
If you are one such supplement expert and are reading this, we implore you to join the good fight. We’re here to help you, too.
My “belief” about health food store employees isn’t all about the feels. There is evidence. One of my most often cited references is the Canadian health food store study.
88% of the Time, You’re Being Lied To
In a 2009 study published in The Journal of the American College of Nutrition, it was demonstrated that almost all - yes, ALL - information given by staff in health food stores was incorrect. The researchers conducted secret shopper experience with a series of questions on particular health topics and supplements in 192 health food stores and 56 pharmacies all across Canada.
Their findings were that 82% of the time the advice was poorly supported by the literature. Shockingly, 6% of the time, the advice given was based on NO science whatsoever. That means 88% of the time advice from supplement specialists was not entirely factual. You technically have better odds playing Russian roulette.
In pharmacies it was pretty bad, too. Over 27% of the time a pharmacist or staffer’s advice on supplements was not soundly based on available data. You would think people with credentials, especially around pills and softgels, would do better. Although pharmacies did better at providing advice, we don't think that "being fairly accurate or inaccurate 27% of the time" is something to aspire towards. We set our standards a lot higher than that.
We were not surprised at the results of the study. Health food store salespeople are rarely professionals or health experts. We feel they should be, simply because of the weight of their recommendations. Someone who speaks about boosting the immune system, but doesn’t understand what the immune system is or how it works, should not be considered an expert. Supplements can interact with medicines or cause long-term harm due to poor quality control.
Health food stores generally promote and sell products that are popular or have high-profit margins. Virtually no health food stores have a person assigned to vet the quality of the products they sell or the advice they give. It’s pretty easy to know what gingko is. It’s harder to know if gingko is right for someone. It’s extremely difficult to understand all the nuance surrounding the manufacturing of ginkgo supplements.
In the modern supplement industry, we are walking through a fog. Some are confidently jogging without regard to what’s around us. I want everyone to slow down, take smaller steps, and try to reach out our hands and walk together through it.
The Middle Path Approach To Supplement Data
That being said, great supplement data is sparse. It’s nowhere near perfect. Ideally, we’d like to see big studies, funded by a health organization that doesn’t have an ax to grind or an agenda, with a study done over a long enough time, using excellent, variable reducing methods. What we have, typically, are small studies, using a specific product, sponsored by the brand itself, over a really short period of time. The results of these studies are the best we have at times, but should really only be considered as a starting point for further and better research.
But you’re an adult, and even though data for a wide population may be lacking, you may want to try something to see if it has a benefit for you. And you are the one that matters here.
I wouldn’t recommend IGNORING the data. If there is concrete proof something WON’T work, or if it is biologically impossible for something TO work, then I wouldn’t waste your money. We talked about how megadosing Vitamin C is biologically ineffective. Recently we talked about the trend of using stevia for Lyme’s and how it is physically not possible to absorb.
With that, we want to further prepare you so your decisions are on a solid foundation. When you decide to use a supplement based on your research or a recommendation there are two main points you should have clarified before you take the plunge.
You must ensure the compound is safe.
Despite all the data in the world, a product is only OK for you to use if it is generally considered safe in the short and long term. Most importantly, it must play well with you and your other supplements and medications. The newest supplement might be fine “in general”, but if you have a special situation like abnormal kidney, heart, or liver health, the “in general” doesn’t apply to you. Heck, even your age or gender may influence a supplement’s safety profile.
You must ensure you are giving the ingredient a fair shake.
Some people have tried melatonin for sleep in the past but come to us looking for real expert advice. When we ask a few questions, a common scenario plays out. The person who’s given up on melatonin wasn’t taking the right amount or form of melatonin. If a supplement doesn’t work for you, was it really the supplement, or could it have been the product? You want to eliminate all the variables you can - the form, the dose, and even the brand - to guarantee you are giving your trial run a fair shake.
The 3 Questions To Ask Your Supplement Expert
It’s REALLY hard to try a supplement WITHOUT a trusted expert. How much should you take? How long until you should see results? What results are we expecting? Not only do you have to vet the product, you have to vet the ‘expert’ or the source.
Question one: What training do you have?
If you need advice on immune support, would someone who doesn’t know what an immune system is or how it operates be the person to advise you?
There is no certification or training required to sell supplements at most retailers. People are often hired off the street and trained on the job. That’s right, someone who is helping you choose the proper herb for mood support, or even someone picking out your prenatal vitamin, is someone who learned what to say from a coworker.
In a perfect world, supplement retailers would undergo some level of standardized training around supplements provided by a reputable source. For now, your best bet is to always double check with a doctor, pharmacist, or another licensed practitioner to ensure a supplement is good for you. If your trusted expert is a licensed professional, you can be assured they understand the complicated nature of the whole picture.
It’s not a perfect world, so there are other ways a supplement salesperson can be competent. If someone has had formal coursework in biology, biochemistry, or pathophysiology, they would be familiar with basic level health topics and at least have a reasonable foundation to build on. The real feather in someone’s cap is biostatistics. If you can find someone who is familiar with statistics, scientific literature, and can critically evaluate the validity of a study, then you are in the right place.
Anything from this point on is our hard red line. Really, to call yourself an expert you need the traits we mentioned above. If you’re in a pinch, there are a few ways you can know someone has a very basic understanding of supplements. Look for people who are active in the industry and are aware of current events, trends, and research. Someone who has received comprehensive on the job training is great. Some brands offer training in their products, which is better than nothing but is heavily biased and limited in scope. People who fit into this category may be helpful, but understand that these people are in no way experts…
Question two: How do you know if this product is quality?
Even someone with extensive training in supplements may not know anything about product quality control, at least not to the detail we all should.
If a supplement expert hands you a product, they’d better be able to vouch for it. Someone who confidently says “it’s fine” without any actual proof clearly doesn’t understand the current state of the industry, further showing they are unqualified. Understanding how a supplement is made, where the raw materials come from, and ALL the problems that arise, is what we would consider the bare minimum. Imagine a pharmacist who doesn’t know how a drug is brought to market. How trustworthy could they be?
Some health food store employees know to ask questions, but don’t know who to ask. Many might ask questions of their brands, but usually don’t dig deep enough to get real answers. So many times we’ve been given these superficial, long-winded responses from educators or founders of brands that have no real insight to their quality control. We can see how for many lay-people or casual supplement peddlers that it can be enough.
The opposite is also true. Sometimes the answers are overly complex and peppered with references. “That seems authoritative!” and the pursuit of truth stops. This goes to the first point we made about training: a true expert will understand how to investigate references and see through the lies that are statistics.
The best, trusted expert does not take any information they receive as gospel without further verifying it completely. If that can be done via a third-party organization or lab, then even better!
Question three: How do you know this is OK for me to try?
This one is simple. If you ask this question to someone who isn’t a licensed professional who has your full history, the answer should be, “I don’t. I think it will be ok based on my expertise, but you should check with your doctor/pharmacist/etc.”
This shows someone with humility. This shows someone who has experience working clinically. This shows someone who understands their small role in a bigger picture. This is a person who understands it is difficult to discern what’s going on with a customer from a brief chat on the floor of a retail store.
The fact is, we’re all kind of winging it in the supplement world. Because there isn’t extensive testing, and because products vary between brands and even batches of the same brand, we can’t be 100% certain an interaction won’t happen or a side effect won’t occur.
Be Your Own Advocate
It is ESSENTIAL that supplement advice come from well educated, accountable people who are familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of natural products in the treatment of disease or optimization of health and wellness.
We have so many examples of improperly trained health food store employees giving the wrong advice. Most notably, and the reason that prompted this, was a customer of ours received a licorice supplement at a vitamin store in New York City. That employee didn’t ask an important question - do you have high blood pressure? The customer came to us saying they were light-headed, dizzy, and their blood pressure readings were higher than normal and wondered if the new supplement could be the issue. These types of scenarios play out all across the country all the time, but thankfully this one was corrected before anything serious happened.
It’s not the employees who are there, trying to do their best. They are just part of the broken system. The problem comes from those who are overconfident in their abilities and the nature of the industry that are most problematic to us. If you work in supplements and are reading this, I recommend a more measured approach. It was one of the first things they taught us as pharmacists; know what you don’t know, and be quick to refer people to experts.
Knowing the truth about the industry may complicate things for some people. “The people that are advising me are making things up. The products are junk! Now what the heck do I do?”
We don’t intend to frustrate, but simplify this for you. Right now, it’s complex and overwhelming at times. So much information, so many product options, and so many “experts” weighing in on the whole thing.
We suggest you turn that frown upside down. Use this sobering dose of reality to make even better decisions. My favorite part of the supplement industry is that it empowers people to take control of their health and use a holistic approach to their wellness. Use the insights gained here to be even more vigilant of the brands you consider quality, the products you use, and the experts you trust.
All of our Woodstock Vitamins products are Vitality Approved, so you can be sure that you're getting quality products: pure, potent, and consistent batch to batch.
Just trying to keep it real...
Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth