Sure Supplements Measure Up
problemcertainly not the only problemwith buying dietary
supplements such as glucosamine, SAM-e, ginkgo biloba, ginseng,
and so forth is that you don't know what you're getting. Does
the bottle contain what the label says? In the amounts specified?
What does "standardized" mean on a label? When what's in question
is an herb, little is known about which constituents of each plant
are the important ones. Even if you do know, the amount of the
active ingredients can vary from plant to plant. In the case of
chemicals like SAM-e or glucosamine, the active ingredient is
known, but there is no "standardized" method for measuring it.
Moreover, nobody has any idea how much SAM-e or ginkgo, for instance,
it takes to produce results.
Enter ConsumerLab.com, a new testing organization with a website
and a "seal of approval" that manufacturers can use if they measure
up. It was founded by a physician and former natural-products
chemist from the FDA, and has advisors from the American Botanical
Council and other reputable organizations. Funded by private investors
rather than the supplements industry, it purchases products for
testing from a selection of the top-selling brands. It tests for
identity and potencynot effectiveness. (That is, does the
product contain what the label claims in the amounts listed? Is
it truly ginseng or ginkgo, or something else? But not "does it
work?") Sometimes it also tests for impurities. If a product flunks,
the manufacturer can reformulate it and pay $2,500 to have it
retested. Only products that pass are listed on the ConsumerLab
websitenot the failures. For a fee, marketers of products
that pass can carry the ConsumerLab seal of approval on their
Even the preliminary efforts of ConsumerLab.com show that people
who buy nutritional supplements are often throwing their money
away. Examples of recent findings:
Only three out of four ginkgo biloba products tested contained
ginkgo biloba in the specified amount. This herb is supposed to
improve memory, among other things.
Of 27 brands of saw palmetto, which is sold for treating symptoms
of prostate enlargement, only 17 contained saw palmetto in the
Of 26 vitamin C pills, four didn't pass. Of these four, one
wouldn't dissolve, and the others had less C than claimed.
these tests don't go far enough
Only one sample (at most two) from each brand selected is tested.
This, alas, is meaningless. Herbal products vary widely, simply
because of the nature of the plants and the processing. One batch
of saw palmetto capsules, for instance, may differ greatly from
another, even though they both come from the same processor. Tests
for vitamins and minerals are more meaningful, since only one
substance is involved. Even there, one sample doesn't prove much.
The next batch might contain less or more.
there are no tests for bioavailability of herbal supplementsthat
is, whether the substance will be absorbed and actually utilized
by the body. Thus, ConsumerLab.com cannot test for this. And it's
supplements measure up
You have no guarantee that your supplement contains exactly what
the label says. However, the chemistry of vitamins and minerals
is well understood, compared to that of herbs.
It is advisable to look for "USP" on the label of vitamins and
minerals. This means that the product meets the standards of the
U.S. Pharmacopeia, including one for disintegration, and has been
tested under controlled laboratory conditions. Generic or store-brand
vitamins are more often labeled USP and are cheaper anyway. Of
course, this isn't as simple as it sounds. Most brand-names are
not labeled USPbut that doesn't mean they aren't up to its
However, when it comes to buying herbal products like ginkgo or
supplements like glucosamine, SAM-e, or mela-tonin, you're entirely
on your own. Here's what consumers need and can legitimately demand
from the FDA and from the companies enriching themselves in the
Standards of identity that ensure quality and purity; assurance
that products don't vary from batch to batch.
Herbs sold under their official Latin name, as well as their
common name, with lists of scientifically established uses for
Proof of "equivalence"that is, a given dose of a product
must contain a certain amount of key ingredients in order to
produce a known effect.
Proof that products actually will be absorbed and utilized by
Assurance that the substance is nontoxic, along with lists of
any potential side effects and interactions with drugs.
Reference Source 98,99