Food and nutritional supplement labeling have been a cause for contention for centuries. The first American law intended to regulate food adulteration in 1880 was defeated in congress. Over the next 25 years over 100 bills were presented to congress and were all shot down. It wasn’t until the 1906 passing of the original Food and Drugs Act that there was any regulation of labeling and branding food and supplements. This first law, however, was weak, vague and easy to get around. Since then, we have seen a cat and mouse game between the food and supplement industry and the public and government. As new laws pass over the years with specific provisions, profit-seeking companies tweak their marketing and labeling to meet the requirements yet continue to mislead uninformed customers into buying their products. While the intentions of the government are well-founded, never was the phrase “buyer beware” more applicable than in the supplement industry. The responsibility ultimately falls on the consumer to educate themselves and make an informed decision as it relates to their health and wallet. The reason companies keep selling products with misleading labels is quite simply because people keep buying them. A growing healthy living movement has resulted in more well-informed consumers, but the majority of consumers remain naive and vulnerable to deception, and the majority drives the market. Should the government pass a highly restrictive bill in an attempt to protect the uninformed consumer, such as the Dietary Supplement labeling Act of 2011, which would require registration of products and a full review of every commercially available supplement on the market for safety and accuracy of claims, the impact on the industry would be devastating. While it would greatly increase oversight to label accuracy and product safety, it would also result in extensive red tape, long and drawn-out approval processes, but most importantly, a huge cost to manufacturers, costs which would be passed to retail shelves. We would see our already expensive supplements skyrocket in price and the industry would tumble. The responsibility falls on the public to make informed choices and educate themselves. When consumers stop buying products with dodgy labels and outrageous claims, manufacturers will stop selling them, and the industry will shape up
With the number of products and ingredients available and the constant influx of more being introduced every year, learning about everything is not realistic. What we can do is look for certain criteria on the label to make our decision of what to buy and what not to buy:
Lack of ingredient information: This is used in instances where there are standardizations of ingredients, usually herbal extracts. The ingredient and its standardization should be listed. For instance: “Milk Thistle Seed Extract 200mg standardized to 80% Silymarin = 160mg.” A product that just lists “Milk Thistle Seed Extract 200mg” should be avoided, as you are looking for Silymarin, which is the active ingredient and have no way of knowing how much is in it with no standardization details.
Proprietary blends: A proprietary blend is several ingredients bunched together and labeled as one single blended ingredient. Proprietary blends are used in other industries to protect intellectual property. In dietary supplements, however, they are primarily used to cut costs. They allow manufacturers to include effective and expensive ingredients on the labels but not disclose that they use an insignificant and ineffective amount. These are so widely used that avoiding them would mean ruling out 95% of supplements, however it is important to be wary about the motivation behind their use. The only legal requirement is that manufacturers label the most abundant ingredient first and go in descending order; so you can assume that the ingredients toward the end of the list are there in small amounts and listed for the sole purpose of deceiving those that are looking for them into thinking they will get the benefits of that ingredient and buy the product.
The use of fillers: Manufacturers widely use fillers in everything from multivitamins to protein supplements to cut costs and deceive buyers. Hydrogenated oils, magnesium stearate, artificial colors and titanium dioxide are often used in pill vitamins and are all potentially dangerous. In powdered products, soya lecithin is used as a cheap and easy filler, particularly in greens supplements where lecithin is ‘technically’ a greens ingredient, but lacks all of the benefits of true greens. Lecithin does have beneficial binding properties and is useful in smaller amounts, but its abundant use is done for means of cutting costs. In pure protein supplements, be sure to look at the total gram per serving versus the amount of protein per serving. If a serving has 30 grams of protein, but the total serving is 50 grams, be certain you are paying for a lot of fillers, as the ‘protein’ product is only 60% protein. High quality products such as Isoflex from Allmax Nutrition has 27 grams of protein in a 30 gram serving, which is among the highest protein gram to total gram ratio at 90% pure protein.
Other ingredients: Labeled separately from the ‘active’ ingredients are the ‘other’ ingredients. These are ingredients included in the product for reasons other than nutrition. Often included are potentially hazardous ingredients used as preservatives or taste enhancement. A laundry list of ingredients in this area or something that doesn’t look like it belongs may be an indicator that the manufacturer of the product did not have health as a primary focus when developing their formula.
We will never live in a world where products, nutritional or not, are labeled to represent exactly what they do and exactly what they contain. The government can step in and set loose regulations to prevent against grossly unsafe products and some forms of quackery, however it will always be the onus of the consumer to know what they are buying. Understanding what your goals are in purchasing a supplement and what is a realistic expectation will help with making an informed decision. Dietary supplements are complicated products with a great deal open to interpretation. While there are countless products and companies trying to deceive and mislead the public into buying their products, there are some reputable and trustworthy companies selling solid and effective products. Educate yourself for your health.