Supplement Scams: Your Guide to Red Flags and Best Practices

Do you want to sleep better, have more energy, lose those extra pounds, have smoother skin, or say goodbye to feeling anxious? There’s a pill for that, and it’s over the counter — at least if you believe the claims! While countless companies sell dietary supplements, such as vitamins, minerals, herbal remedies, enzymes, and probiotics, and promise improvements for various health concerns, you should be careful with what bottle you reach for on the shelves or add to your cart online.

Key takeaways:
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    From ineffective to dangerous products, there are many scams on the supplement market.
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    While there are some FDA regulations around supplements, the FDA usually does not get involved unless adverse effects are reported.
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    There are some red flags to look out for, as well as some best practices to keep in mind, when shopping for supplements.

Due to the way dietary supplements are categorized under the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), they do not need to be registered or approved by the FDA before being sold to the public.

The regulation does exist, but it’s not enough. Shawn Wells, “ingredientologist” and also known as the “world’s greatest formulator,” who’s formulated more than 1,000 supplements and patented 25 ingredients, told Healthnews, “The regulations can’t keep up. Things have to be pretty outrageous for the FDA or FTC [Federal Trade Commission] to step in.” There are tens of thousands of companies, but there aren’t enough people to keep up with the pace at which new companies begin to market new dietary supplements. He added, “A lot of companies don’t follow the regulation. They don’t mind taking the risk because there’s very little chance of getting slapped on the wrist.”

The risk those companies take can become the cost consumers pay for their health. Allergic reactions, adverse side effects, negative reactions to prescription medications, or simply wasting money are all negative consequences of supplement scams.

Wells highlighted that there is regulation In fact, the FDA released its final rule for Current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMPs) for the supplement industry in 2007, stating that manufacturers are required to evaluate the identity, purity, strength, and composition of their dietary supplements. That’s on top of the need for companies to meet labeling guideline requirements under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994.

The FDA, however, only steps in when there’s been a report of adverse effects due to taking a supplement, which may be more common than you might think.

While data is limited, according to a special article published in the New England Journal of Medicine, between 2004 and 2013, there was “an estimated 23,000 emergency department visits in the United States every year are attributed to adverse events related to dietary supplements.”

Over the past couple of decades, there’s been an exponential growth in adults wanting to take their health into their own hands and seek out ways to optimize both their physical and mental health. Their access to supplements that might help is bigger than ever.

Dietary supplements are a big business, and they are seeing their highest growth yet. According to a
Market Analysis Report by Grandview Research, the global dietary supplements market size was valued at $163.9 billion in 2022 and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.9%, projected to reach $327.4 billion by 2030.

Despite the lack of validation behind most supplements, more than 7 out of 10 adults take them, according to a consumer survey by Council for Responsible Nutrition. This leads to a continued increase in new vitamins hitting the market each year.

With the abundance of options, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and confused when standing in the supplement aisle of the grocery store. It’s important to consider that while marketing claims might stand out, it does not mean that the supplement will work.

Here are seven red flags to look out for and six best practices to ensure you’re not compromising your health and getting the most for your money.

Seven red flags for supplements

1. "Proprietary blends”

Wells warns that proprietary blends only tell you part of the story. It may contain all the ingredients, but the quantity matters. It lists the ingredients in order of descending mass, meaning the first ingredient is the highest amount, and it’s less and less as the list goes on. Such descriptions do not specify the exact amount for each, though. This could lead to “fairy dusting,” when the most important ingredient has very little amount while the least important ones take up the rest.

2. Wild number claims

When companies claim scientific proof and facts about the product, it’s often just a marketing ploy. The “science” that’s behind these claims may be exaggerated and manipulative based on a small sample size study, so always take those claims with a grain of salt, especially if it’s a supplement that’s not from an established brand.

3. Too many ingredients

When the product (excluding multi-vitamins) contains too many ingredients, especially those listed as “Other ingredients,” it might not bring about the desired effect. Different ingredients work through different physiological pathways, so more is not always better.

4. Good for too many ailments

When the product claims to provide relief for a large number of issues, such as leaky gut, skin issues, bloating, insulin sensitivity, and more all at once, chances are it’s over-promising and will under-deliver.

5. Claims to “prevent,” “treat,” or “cure” disease

Since dietary supplements do not have to be approved by the FDA before being sold on the market, they do not have legitimate evidence proving they would prevent, treat, or cure any disease. It’s also against the law to make those claims.

6. Too-good-to-be-true reviews

Reading through customer testimonials of any product you’re looking to buy is a good strategy, but it shouldn’t guide your decision. Every human has a different body and due to our bioindividuality, there is no “one-supplement-fits-all” solution.

7. Use of fancy science words

Don’t fall for phrases and promises that may sound like they’re backed by science. Companies are free to market with any groundbreaking-sounding message to get you to buy their product, but “miraculous results,” “new scientific discovery,” and “life-changing outcomes” are no more than shiny pennies- they might look good but aren’t worth much.

Six supplement best practices

1. Reach for established brands

You can have a lot more confidence in buying from companies that have been around for many years and have an established positive reputation. These companies spend millions of dollars on validation by third-party organizations, so Wells recommends supporting the companies that are supporting your health.

2. Honest labeling

The more transparent the company is with their ingredients and the amounts of each used, the better. Additionally, having a quality seal and bottle and including an easy way to contact the company on the label, all show transparency and trust.

3. Third-party certification

There are third-party organizations, such as the NSF (National Sanitation Foundation), Certified for Sport, and USDA Organic that provides independent testing standards and product certifications. Their goal is to further protect consumers against contaminants and ensure that no additional ingredient is included in the supplement that’s not displayed on the label.

4. Do your research

Look up the company, their history, and their process for sourcing ingredients. If there are any ingredients that look unfamiliar, be sure to talk to your doctor about it.

5. Ensure the right form of the ingredients is being used as the active component

“I will only buy a product if each ingredient is listed shows its plants part, a genus of the species [Latin plant name], standardized form, and the amount,” says Well. He points this out as if it’s the wrong part of the plant used as the active ingredient, it may be completely inefficacious. Take ginseng for example. It’s the ginseng root that has been found impactful, but if the supplement contains ginseng leaf, it’s not going to have the promised effect. It's also important to keep in mind that "all-natural" doesn't always mean it is supporting the right pathway in your body.

6. Sourcing matters

Look for branded ingredients that have patents and studies proving their safety and efficacy. It’s key to knowing that you’re “getting what you’re paying for and not getting what you’re not paying for,” Wells says. E. coli, heavy metals, glyphosate, radiation, and banned substances can all end up in your next vitamin if the company you’re buying from did not go the extra mile to vet the ingredients and put them through rigorous testing.

Buying supplements can feel overwhelming. While there are many scams in the supplement space, there are ways to protect yourself. Do your research and make sure you understand the companies and products that you're buying.


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