If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Dietary supplements have surged in popularity, leaving consumers inundated with ads, offers, and walls of products at retail shops. It can become difficult to distinguish high-quality, scientifically-backed products from those that are backed solely by clever marketing tactics, creating an uneven playing field.
We are seeing an increasing amount of unprecedented scientific promise coming from dietary supplement brands – so what’s the problem? The lack of scientific evidence surrounding their product claims is disguised behind savvy marketing.
Given the lack of transparency, consumers need more tools to separate legitimate health supplements from deceiving products.
Shifting Consumer Health Habits
As we pass the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic hitting the U.S., Americans are continually searching for ways to boost their overall health. In fact, according to a study from the Council for Responsible Nutrition, more than two in five supplement users changed their supplement routine since the start of the pandemic.
Companies selling dietary supplements have been quick to try and meet the demand. Subsequently, Americans have seen a boom in the spread of misinformation around the science – or lack thereof – behind some of these products.
When It Comes to Health, Proceed With Caution
Because supplements are not held to the same regulatory standards as drugs before entering the market, the onus is put on the brands to appropriately market their products. While more established and respected companies tend to be responsible in their marketing, relying on scientific evidence, some companies use the “innocent until proven guilty” approach. In turn, it is ever more difficult for consumers to decipher what a product is scientifically proven to do in the body. However, consumers have a right to know.
Unlike picking up an over-the-counter drug, which requires phases of human testing before it hits the shelves, supplements are considered safe until proven otherwise. However, the safest and efficacious supplement ingredients are rooted in those human clinical trials, just like highly regulated drugs. Through robust science that includes well-designed preclinical and clinical studies, as well as a clear understanding of the mechanism of action, the scientific potential of dietary supplementation may be revealed over time.
Supplement Industry Regulation
As a result of the pandemic, the FDA ramped up its efforts to regulate supplement companies and increased oversight over the market. More recently, Amazon joined the fight against false advertising, issuing new mandatory requirements for supplement marketers. These requirements demand specific documentation, including a Certificate of Analysis from an ISO/IEC 17025 accredited laboratory, product images that show all sides of an accurate product label, and a Letter of Guarantee from the manufacturer that confirms the product is compliant with Good Manufacturing Practices and that it only contains lawful and safe ingredients.
Regulatory agencies and companies alike are making strides toward protecting the health and safety of consumers.
However, given the breadth of supplements on the market, it requires effort from both companies and consumers. Companies should ensure that rigorous third-party science and testing are the backbone of product claims. They should actively seek the highest form of regulatory acceptance, certifications, and verifications available to supplements. In the U.S., this would mean a New Dietary Ingredient notification and Generally Recognized as Safe status from the FDA. Likewise, consumers should approach supplements with a skeptical eye, seeking supplement companies that provide third-party data that backs up product claims.
Increasing consumer interest in health and disease topics, like aging, has opened the door for misinformation and scientifically uninformed marketing ploys. Take, for example, NAD+ — a molecule at the forefront of healthy aging and lifespan. Conversations about this molecule and its connection to aging have bolstered consumer demand for products that can help boost NAD+ levels.
As a result, multiple methods have emerged, with nicotinamide riboside (NR) and nicotinamide mononucleotide (NMN) as two of the superstars, with both claiming they are the superior pathway. Fanfare by prominent scientists has generated increased consumer interest. Through astounding claims about NMN being the new “fountain of youth” and news headlines like “Are You Ready to Live to 150?” consumers may believe that NMN comes out on top.
But what science, and most vitally, what data, is substantiating the claims of NR and NMN?
According to ClinicalTrials.gov, as well as the WHO International Clinical Trials Registry, there are a total of 45 ongoing studies involving NR, compared to 13 for NMN. NR has already been tested in 11 published human clinical studies, which provide a broader and far more convincing foundation of scientific evidence. In contrast, NMN has been the subject of only one published clinical study, which did not even test if it could increase NAD+ levels in humans.
Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, the average consumer likely does not know how two potentially similar ingredients have such a disparity in terms of published human data and regulatory acceptance. Consumers should understand this important context and arm themselves with knowledge as they consider buying or ingesting any related supplements.
What Should Consumers Do Before Purchasing a Supplement?
Though it may be tempting to fall prey to promises, it is important to keep three things in mind: the science, the certifications, and the ingredients.
Do some searching online to see if products boast any regulatory approvals or acceptances, or if they note what independent clinical data support the ingredients in their products, if any.
Legitimate products should also be third-party certified. For example, the NSF International’s Certified for Sport program verifies that a product does not contain any of 280 substances banned by major athletic organizations, certifies the supplement’s contents match its label, confirms there are no unsafe levels of contaminants, and affirms it was manufactured at a legitimate facility. Consumers can also check if products have been verified by other well-established third-party certifiers, such as the U.S. Pharmacopeia.
Closely review the label. Some products have only a handful of ingredients, while others may list upwards of 50 ingredients. In the U.S., regulatory acceptance for supplements is limited to the ingredient, and not the finished product. The more ingredients a product contains, the more complex and confusing it can be for the consumer to evaluate the product. Picking products with fewer ingredients, especially ones in which the main ingredient is well-studied, can reduce confusion.
Just as we should expect supplement companies to do their research before marketing products, consumers should also do their research to hold these products to the highest standards possible. To maintain the integrity of the supplement industry, it is imperative that scientific data is always the north star of the products.
Andrew Shao, PhD, has spent nearly two decades in the global nutrition industry, holding a doctorate in nutritional biochemistry and master’s in human nutrition science, both from Tufts University. He currently serves as senior vice president for global scientific and regulatory affairs at ChromaDex Corp.