Supplement Quality Is An Onion: The Claims
I’m an analogy guy, and I’ve got a bunch! The campfire or jenga analogy for nutrition are two of the more popular ones around here. My favorite is the steak analogy in our 3 Types of Dietary Supplements article, where I teach people our supplements aren’t what they seem and I relate them to steaks, fast-food cheeseburgers, and moldy-disease ridden cheeseburgers.
It’s our mission to help you see that the industry isn’t what we think it is (we’re not getting steaks, we’re getting fast food cheeseburgers). I want you to be able to vet products for quality, at least to a basic degree. If you follow our process, you’ll be lightyears ahead of the general public.
It’s nearly impossible for a consumer to know what quality of supplement they are getting. Just starting to peek behind this curtain (as we’ve tried to help people do), creates a bit of nervous tension. “Oh, more work for me to do before I buy something” or “Everything is ruined, I just don’t care and will buy whatever’s cheapest” are two very natural reactions to learning about the discrepancy between the products we want and the products that are available.
This article is the first in a series that will give you some tricks to quickly assess if the product or brand you’re considering are likely producing misleading, poor quality supplements.
Today’s analogy comes from the wisdom of the best ugly meanie ever, Shrek. I’ve watched those movies a bit too much, being a father of 4.
He states “Ogres are like onions… LAYERS!”
Being able to judge the quality of supplements is an overwhelming task, so I’m giving you a framework to break it down into a layered approach. Just like an onion.
Today, we focus on the outermost layer of the supplement quality onion: the claims the brand or product makes.
What Is A Supplement Claim?
A claim is anything a brand or product states it does. “My product will rid you of your facial warts in 12 days.” “Honey Nut Cheerios will lower your cholesterol.” “Taking this magical supplement will treat cancer.”
A claim can be anywhere in the entire ecosystem of the product, not just on the bottle or packaging of a product. It’s all the marketing: the website, the ads, the social media posts, and even the gurus talking about it.
There are good claims and bad claims. Simply put, good claims are done within the legal parameters, bad claims are not.
Here’s the big take home: A company or individual that is so brazen to make illegal claims probably is being brazen with the rest of their business. Not in a good way, either.
“Why so, harsh, Neal?” Because it’s #basic. Besides some of the ethical implications of making claims about your products that aren’t substantiated by anything even remotely scientific, even newbies know it’s illegal to do.
What you can and can’t say about a supplement is the piece that almost everyone involved in supplement knows. It SHOULD be the first thing taught to anyone who is in training to advise, manufacture, or market supplements. It’s the most basic of legal compliance that everyone is taught.
These are the things the FDA attacks the most, as they are low hanging fruit. They did it with Alzheimer's supplements recently and now with CBD.
How committed to quality manufacturing is a brand if they are violating the most basic and glaringly obvious breach of laws that even entry-level staff are usually trained on? If you are a manufacturer and have a lawyer or compliance team and still are doing that, your whole team is corrupt, morons, or have a side job of representing the President.
Legal and Illegal Supplement Claims
Let’s focus on bad supplement claims, as they are generally easier to spot.
A bad supplement claim will link a nutrient, food, or supplement to a disease or condition. If they use the words treat or cure, that’s a double whammy.
Dietary supplements have no evidence (well established clinical trials, large ones) proving effectiveness - or safety for that matter - as they are legally excluded from needing it. Supplements don’t NEED to prove themselves to be safe or effective, if they did then they’d be considered a drug.
All this means that we CANNOT claim a product to be effective at treating or curing a disease.
If a doctor/snake oil salesman/whoever makes a similar claim, they themselves are violating the law.
If a supplement or expert claims a supplement will treat or cure any disease, they’re violating basic regulations.
What is permitted, legally, is what is referred to as structure/function claims. We can talk about how a nutrient influences the overall health of a person or what system it can influence (positively or negatively), but we’re not talking about specifics.
We can say “probiotics are good for gut health” but we can’t say “probiotics will stop constipation.”
We can say “calcium intake will ensure healthy bones” but we can’t say “our calcium will improve your bone density.”
The legal claims can be a little fuzzy, as you can see. We can even talk about a study: “calcium hydroxyapatite maintained bone density in a recent clinical trial.” Note the subtleties.
In general, what you’ll see good brands do, is talk about supporting an organ or system’s health:
- _______ supports heart health
- _______ supports immune health
- _______ supports mood
- _______ supports healthy energy levels
They’ll usually do so talking about the ingredient, not the product. “Collagen supports hair, skin, and nail health.” Again, subtlety is important.
I’m not asking you to be able to discern these nuances, but look at the broad strokes. Watch for any claims of treating a disease or claiming that the product will cure or reverse it.
A customer handed me an article about a “cure for cancer” that of course was “hidden in plain sight” written by a doctor. If you'd like to see the FDA's policy 'cause you're that into it, it's here. The red flags are set off instantly for me, and I want you to have that same reflex.
Anti-science or Non-Scientific Claims
Moving from the outermost onion layer about claims and moving to the inside of this layer, we’ll talk about the claims that are just plain out invalid at a biological or chemical level.
The second part of this layer goes beyond the legal use of the words treat or cure, and goes beyond the legal responsibility to not misrepresent what your product is or what it can do.
Let me be clear: medicine is a practice and there is room everywhere for interpretation of the science, because the clinical data we collect will be of varying quality and have its own biases. I’m fully aware, but I believe that there are red flags of medical misinformation and claims that we all should look at and go, “Nuh uhhh.”
Here’s a big one that comes to mind: “Vaccines cause autism.”
We have to start holding people accountable for the claims they make. Our society is overrun with misinformation in every facet of society. Medical misinformation, especially around supplements, needs this accountability as much as political or economical misinformation.
Much like the “debate” around climate change, we must realize that there are some things in the natural products industry that the scientific consensus overwhelmingly supports or rejects.
I believe that those products or “experts” that cross red lines around anti-science claims should be outright rejected. How can we be sure a product or guru will uphold any responsibility for quality manufacturing if they’re so cavalier with their propaganda?
Don’t Write Checks Your Claim Can’t Cash
At the start of the article, I stated that it’s impossible for a layperson to truly know what quality supplement they are getting. I should restate that: it’s not impossible, but it certainly isn’t easy.
When looking for quality, what we must NOT do is use the normal “shortcuts” for determining if something is what it says it is. Don’t look SOLELY to the following:
- Credentials: The person selling the product is credentialled or is a seemingly trustworthy, qualified expert. Too many snake oil salesman can convince people of anything.
- Reviews: Reviews or feedback from others. We’re not choosing a hotel or restaurant. Most of us generally don’t know the whole onion of supplement quality, so we shouldn’t trust others “success” or general feedback. Besides, most reviews are fake!
- Price: There’s such a disconnect between price and quality in supplements. We have to look beyond cost and look at value. For CBD, I teach people that 10 cents per mg is a good value. Fish oil shouldn’t cost more than 50 cents per gram of EPA and DHA.
I’m not asking for much. I’m just asking you to completely reprogram how you think about supplements. Not much, right?
When it comes to the outermost layer of supplement quality - the claims a product, brand, or “guru” makes - there are some clear legal red lines that should not be crossed. Natural products have not been proven to treat or cure anything, so we cannot make that claim.
If a product or expert is building their case based on illegal affirmations or those that are straight-up anti-science, we must be quick to reject them. They are violating the most basic and obvious laws, and are probably therefore not upholding the difficult manufacturing requirements that are hidden from the watchful eye of the FDA or educated consumers.
The industry is the wild west. Quality is a big question mark with most products on the market. Arm yourself with the knowledge we’re giving you, and these quality onions won’t make you tear up.
Just trying to keep it real...
Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth