The Rant: You Don't Want Transparency
“Whoa, that’s a little direct and presumptive of a title, Neal!” Yep. I did it for the clicks.
I try to dig at consumers of supplements very little. The truth is, the natural product industry propaganda is VERY strong and manipulative. It’s technically not your fault if you end up making “bad” supplement decisions.
Despite the power of the dark side, we’re not helpless damsels (or male equivalent) in distress, either.
What I mean when I say “you” in that title is “you” as in the collective, not you personally. Us. We, as a society don’t really want transparency in the supplement industry, though it is what many of us clamor for–especially when we begin to peel back the onion.
This is a conclusion I’ve come to in my journey to set a new standard for supplement quality. Round and round the idea of transparency goes in my head, and it’s finally stopping here... without collecting $200.
That being said, I believe transparency in supplements is our only hope for a bright future. We’re just not ready for it. And despite it being obvious, open-source supplements, especially if implemented improperly, will cause more problems than it will solve.
The Supplement Industry Kinda Sucks
Time and time again we point out all of the lies and misinformation that are spread by the manufacturers, raw material suppliers, and “practitioners” of this could-be-awesome-if-the-BS-stopped industry.
I’ve taken out my frustrations on fake whole food supplements and recently I’ve been hot for the MTHFR lies. The list continues beyond these quite extensively. It’s the main reason for my frequent visits to the candy drawer.
In my abundant spare time, I teach healthcare practitioners how to build a wellness practice using our model of true holistic care and supplement quality, called Supplement School. Last week in class, we discussed probiotics. Besides talking about how great they can be, I used the lesson to teach them that transparency has to be a part of the probiotic process.
The reason is simple: there are numerous third-party studies showing probiotic products don’t have inside them what you think they do. Many times they’re not even using the right names of the strains. For example, many products contain spore-forming Bacillus strains when you think they have gut-friendly Lactobacillus. “You wanted ascorbic acid (Vitamin C)? Best we got is just acid!"
Even if labels are following best-in-class standards (which should be minimum compliance, yet is a struggle for some brands) often times the actual strains are different than the label.
It can’t get any more clear. I can go on and on about how to select a good probiotic by looking at the label, but if what’s inside the capsule is an ugly, hidden surprise, we’re… well, screwed.
All that effort talking about quality, yet we’re in the same spot if we just randomly selected random products like we’re playing pin the tail on the donkey. At least with the donkey game, the blindfold is intentionally part of the system and you get a happy prize, not diarrhea and bloating.
Transparency is the only option for probiotics and all classes of supplements.
We Barely Have Compliance, Let Alone Transparency
To understand where we need to be, we have to look at where we are. Right now, everything’s a mess.
The rules are written in a way where the only time the single regulatory body has transparency is if they feel you’re doing something wrong. They only come knocking if the problem you present is big enough to bubble up to the top of the pile because they’re underfunded and spread too thin.
It’s voluntary compliance. You don’t submit test results or processes to anyone before your product goes out. You pump out garbage into the world and as long as you’re not directly harming anyone or causing a ruckus, you fly under the radar.
“The market will correct itself.” I love fairytales too!
Compliance with the regs is just one part of the supplement quality picture. You can get certified that you run a clean facility and follow standardized, best-in-class processes. But what if you’re stuffing ineffective forms, negligible doses, or just straight-up dangerous ingredients into the capsules? Your team can wash their hands and follow standard processes all they want, but what if your fish oil product is 1/10th the studied dose and heavy metals are at the upper limit of acceptable?
Pseudo-Transparency Doesn’t Help
Some people are hip to the supplement reality: there’s enormous potential to use supplements as a part of a true holistic care plan, but there are many products and brands selling us a bill of goods.
As our sophistication improves, we seek better stuff. Brands, trying to differentiate themselves, give us some pseudo-transparency.
CBD companies are posting “lab tests” proudly. I’ve talked at length about how bad CBD quality is. As I point out though, these brands are doing two things:
- Posting partial test results that show their products in a favorable light
- Not extensively testing their products, so we only get halfway transparency.
Here’s the thing, these tests are for consumers to get them to feel confident in their products. I know how to read those things, but do “you”? Probably not, but just the mere presence and “positive” results are enough for people to choose those products over others. Even if it’s not deserved.
Like someone in Illinois wearing an N95 mask incorrectly because of "the coronavirus,” pseudo transparency gives us false confidence.
On the flip side, what if we released testing for our products and you saw this:
These are heavy metal tests. None of them are over limits, but you may say to yourself, “Self, I don’t want ANY heavy metals.” I respect your decision to try to eliminate things from your life!
The problem here is also two-fold:
- I’m the only one sharing my results. You now stop buying my stuff in favor of a less-transparent brand that makes claims of “heavy metal-free"
- I can make this sh*t up. We can technically make these tests say anything we want. There’s no oversight.
‘Member the Prop65 article? In it, we talked about how California requires some level of transparency. It’s a silly level, though; you put a generic label on your product if you cross their very low thresholds. The same level goes on if you have multiples over the threshold. Californian’s basically gloss over now at all the labels.
The real problem is that New York doesn’t have that transparency requirement. As a result, a New Yorker sees the label and PANICS. As you should, if something you ingest says you’re going to get cancer or not have healthy babies.
Pseudo-transparency isn’t just telling part of the story that makes you look good. It is also a situation where the transparency is voluntary (like compliance with the laws to begin with) or one-sided. If transparency is selectively being done without the ability of those engaging with the products to see the forest for the trees (or identify which trees are about to fall on you), it makes the problem MUCH worse.
Are “YOU” Ready For Transparency?
If we had transparency today, it would be a mess. First, there are lots of problem products. We’d be shocked that some of the most trusted brands are essentially frauds.
Garden of Life, New Chapter, Megafood, and more advertise that they’re “whole food” supplements when in reality they’re “probiotic cultured.” This means that in big vats they have yeast and microbes fermenting sugar, synthetic vitamins, and just maybe a “food powder blend.”
The end results? Slightly better versions of the synthetic vitamins, but ones that are no better for you overall than the original synthetic vitamins.
Food powders mixed with yeast isn’t food to me. If it is to you, we’re no longer speaking.
I say that example to say this: would you buy a vitamin that said “Fermented Vitamins” on the front? What if it had to be transparent? No pictures of foods, just pictures of the chemical vats the stuff are made in?
Supplements sell well because it’s mostly marketing hype playing to your aspirational desires. If that component was removed and supplements were forced to show their true colors, the annual sales numbers would be a fraction of what they are now.
Part of that aspirational desire is to believe these companies’ claims of quality. It’s easier. It sounds good. The blue pill in the Matrix does have it’s advantages.
Despite what Michael Jackson’s hit song said, life isn’t black and white. We’re not ready for transparency because we’re not ready to put the pieces together into shades of grey.
Transparency and results from third-party tests must be taken in contextually. What are the red lines that a particular product can’t cross? It’s like grading a paper. It’s not pass-or-fail, but a total, but weighted score.
We want rubber stamps: good, bad, ugly. We can’t have that. We can approach perfection with a comprehensive system, but there is no such thing as the perfect product.
Transparency requires a deeper understanding of the whole process.
How Deep Is Your Love (For Transparency)?
"Ok, so we can’t half-arse it. It has to be full transparency. Transparency requires some third party involvement, like an oversight organization that would prevent everyone from fudging their tests. It also might need a loudmouth like you, who could help people interpret results.” You’re learning.
We also must decide what level of transparency we want. I propose we start with finished product information, like the potency of the active ingredients, contaminant testing (heavy metals, solvents, etc), and proper testing to guarantee common adulterants aren’t there.
Ideally, we’d know much more, like what the ethical practices of the brands and raw material suppliers are. Heck, we were of the first to identify who owns who in the natural products industry, and that knowledge alone rocked people’s worlds.
How much of the sausage-making process do you want to know, though? Do you want to know what raw materials are coming from where? People lost their minds when they heard generic drugs were coming from Asia. It certainly will help with the total picture, but we have to be ready for what we find.
I don’t know if open-source supplements are really good. I get the business reasons why secrets should be kept. You don’t want some clown making a knockoff that’s slightly worse than yours but significantly cheaper.
I do think that retailers should be able to get insight into products easier. Non-disclosures are used now, but companies are very stingy with these.
Neal’s Ideal System
I’ve typed all those words and now I’m going to say the opposite of what you think: I don’t want transparency from supplement companies.
People stink. It’s too easy to manipulate results and game the system, creating unjustified trust. Companies can and should keep some of their secrets. I believe, though, that each company should be required to have more frequent third party inspections of their processes.
I’d rather have regular oversight and THOSE results made transparent. We’re going to tear down a wall, and we’re gonna make the supplement companies pay for it!
I’d like someone critical, not really friendly, with no financial incentive, to be tasked with reviewing companies and their products on the regular. Regular checks are done by someone without an ax to grind.
Maybe something similar to a peer-review process of scientific journals, except less corrupt.
Then, dudes like me can help interpret the results. We can make silly little Youtube videos asking you to smash that subscribe button and all of that.
Ideally, the findings would actually matter to the brand. The big regulator, FDA, would hold their feet to the fire with much higher frequency than they do now. Right now, bad stuff happens, it generally gets swept under the rug, and life continues on. I really want whatever system comes to challenge the establishment of that brand and they’re inclined to fix it.
Things, then, could get better over time.
It’s called continuous quality improvement. You may know of it if you’re involved in bureaucratic BS. It is an excellent philosophy that works.
While regulations have slowly been implemented, we’re still too far off from where we need to be. Something has to change.
I Do Want Transparency, Neal!
The goal of articles like this is for me to let out some pent up frustrations and help you out there understand how bad the current setup is for us.
We’re being severely misled. We’re buying things that aren’t what they say they are. We’re wasting money. We’re taking potentially dangerous products.
Many of us are doing it in that dreamlike, oblivious state. Not because of choice, but because barely anyone is talking about this.
The first step is realizing there’s more than enough reason to want transparency.
The second step is to understand what transparency means. It’s a potentially gross pile of worms there waiting for us if we kick the rock over.
We have to advocate for transparency and rewards brands brave enough to engage in it. That reward can be as simple as not jumping ship at the first signs of what we think is a problem, but taking a moment to look at the big picture and really engage with the system.
We need to understand our role in all of this. This transparency only happens if consumers start demanding it en masse. I’m building an army of fellow practitioners to help spread the word via Supplement School, but we’re going to need a heck of a lot more people who demand better from the industry.
When supplements are done right, they can be such an excellent addition to our lives.
Let’s all get a little ranty about transparency, and start pushing these companies to give us the wellness experience we deserve.
Just trying to keep it real...
Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth