The Nutritional Supplement Industry - Part 1
I’ve been using, researching, writing about, and formulating nutritional supplements for five decades. In that time I’ve seen it all and will be telling much of it in this series of articles.
I first started reading about and using nutritional supplements when I was 13 years old. Throughout the 1960s I used mostly protein powder and tabs, desiccated liver and Brewer’s yeast powder and tabs, wheat germ oil, and vitamins and minerals.
These supplements, while effective for my purposes at the time, are fairly primitive when compared to what’s available today. Since that time not only have the supplements become more sophisticated as far as what’s in them but also as to how they’re used, including dosages and timing, and integrating them with various dieting and training phases.
While the use of nutritional supplements has increased exponentially over the years, the controversy surrounding their use, misuse and abuse, by both the manufacturers and consumers, has also continued to grow.
Because of this confusion that exists in the minds of the consumers I’m going to cover aspects of the nutritional supplement scene that will give you some insight to nutritional supplements and the nutritional supplement industry. This information should be useful in helping you to understand what’s going on in the industry and help you to judge nutritional supplement claims, separating the wheat from the chaff.
I’ll outline the reasons why everyone should be using at least a minimal amount of nutritional supplements, why athletes should be using more than the general public for maximizing body composition and performance, and why some of the practices surrounding nutritional supplement use are suspect.
I’ll try and put supplement use in context to other factors that are important if people want to reach their goals. As well, I’ll go over some of the reasons why I decided to enter the nutritional supplement fray and start up my own nutritional supplement company.
I’ll also cover one or more nutritional supplement ingredients or one or more multi-ingredient supplements, in each issue, the latter to give you examples of effective, targeted, multi-ingredient nutritional supplement formulations.
One of the major problems with the supplement industry is that it’s profit/market driven. But then again almost everything is. However, consumeritis (since I consider excessive consumption to be dysfunctional and inflammatory this term seems appropriate) is definitely worsening with each passing year as we consume more and become more materialistic.
With consumeritis comes an escalating loss of personal identity as shopping and possessing take over our lives and we increasingly tend to measure who we are by what we own and consume. The end result of this quest to own and consume is a pathological state that reflects our socioeconomic circumstances and that ultimately revolves around certain inadequacies in our psyche and a failure to achieve a proper perspective.
While this isn’t the place to discuss the dehumanizing effects of consumeritis and the accompanying, and in my view inevitable existential alienation, it bears at least a cursory look as it explains much of what’s going on in the nutritional supplement industry, and in fact our society.
That’s because “success” in the industry depends on increasing consumer demand, which too often is driven by the overwhelming need to maximize profits, and as such, is created more by smoke and mirrors marketing than it by the value and efficacy of the supplements being sold. Greed is far too often the bottom line for the more driven supplement manufacturers, and completely overshadows any desire on their part to produce a product that has true merit and value.
The Bottom Line
Because the bottom line rules, a lot of what you get in a supplement will be determined by the way a company wants to market the product. Supplements are often designed not so much to get you a certain set of results as they are to appeal to a particular group they want to sell the supplements to. As a result, you're often buying not what you need or want but what the supplement producer thinks you will buy or has manipulated you to buy.
"Perceived value" is of great importance here. It has much in common with that old saying: "It's not who you are that matters. It's who people think you are." Products are sold according to who the products are targeted for. The wording of course is important and varies drastically if the intended audience is a bodybuilder or women who want to lose weight. The color of the advertising, labels (pretty to provocative), and packaging is important as is the presentation and palatability of the product itself. The elements that will allow for successful marketing and advertising, which will interest you in the product regardless of the formula's overall effects, are frequently the focus of the product and the ingredients in the formula.
Again, most often you're not buying a formula rigorously and painstakingly designed for optimum success. You're buying a product that can be advertised in a lively manner or in a way that will make you think you're buying a winner. Whether that product is of real value can be another subject entirely.
Formula design is often a case of either using one or two “hot” ingredients or putting together a collection of these ingredients that have become "buzz words" in the industry. If there's a particular ingredient out there that's been getting a lot of attention or been the focus of a lot of advertising, there's a good possibility you're going to find it in subsequent formulas of that type.
Advertising sells the great majority of supplements and if a particular ingredient's been touted as a new "wonder" substance, whether it is or not, you can bet that the first company to market it is going to try to get the biggest piece of the pie as soon as possible, and most companies are going to follow the leader and include either the specific ingredient or one like it in their formula. Whether that ingredient actually does what they say it does is, of course, often up in the air, and more times than not represents marketing hype rather than reality.
Regulation of the Nutritional Supplement Industry
The nutritional supplement industry, unlike the pharmaceutical industry, is relatively loosely regulated around the world by various governing bodies. The essence behind this lack of regulation is the idea that the various ingredients in nutritional supplements are natural and mostly needed, and used to maintain health rather than treat disease. If the ingredient is specifically used to treat disease then it is usually considered a drug and in most industrialized countries not allowed to be used in over the counter nutritional supplements.
In the US the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994 pretty well took nutritional supplements out from under the FDA umbrella except for label information and statements that the supplement is used to treat or prevent disease unless there is scientific proof of the claims being made. As such the supplement industry is relatively unregulated.
Is this a good or bad thing? It’s good in that we retain the right to choose to use or not use natural ingredients for which there may or may not be valid data on its beneficial effects.
There are those that would restrict our ability to use anything but a proper (at least what they consider proper) diet to provide us with what we need nutritionally. Others are pushing to restrict the use of nutritional supplements to a rigid list of ingredients and only in certain amounts, for example the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for vitamins and minerals.
Without going into detail at this time, although I will delve into the issues in other articles, the first group are simply short sighted people that deny the need for some nutritional supplementation in almost all of us. We are all aware of the many people who espouse the nonsense that “food is all you need and everyone can have a perfect diet.”
The second group is more insidious and operates under the guise of scientific facts. Unfortunately they are misguided in thinking that we presently have the necessary knowledge to make exact decisions on what we should take and how much. And to add insult to injury, they have the audacity to try and make their views official in various countries and strive for international conformity.
The ultimate example of this kind of wrong headed thinking is the Codex Alimentarius, which is an international attempt by various agencies and companies, to control supplementation by limiting access to nutritional products. One of the ways suggested is to shift natural remedies into the prescription category so that they can be as tightly controlled as prescription medications.
While time and research has and will continue to prove that nutritional supplements both evangelical groups wrong, all is not rosy with unrestricted access to nutritional supplements, especially those that have crossed the line and can not be considered natural, which has led to both the bad and the ugly in the nutritional supplement industry.
Everyone Is Doing It
That’s not to say that these “offences” only exist in the supplement industry as they are evident in all facets of our lives, especially as marketing has become all important in selling the product and maximizing profit. We are subjected to ubiquitous and ridiculous claims from ads, infomercials, on the internet, newspapers, magazines, posters, billboards, and even park benches. In fact there is almost no where and no space that isn’t contaminated by the verbiage of deception, exaggerations, and outright lies that have become common marketing strategies.
The supplement industry is no different as far as its marketing strategies from other companies trying to get that all important marketing edge. Think of how ridiculous it is when processed cereals full of sugar and little else are being marketed as healthy foods for children.
Or how various insurance companies all say how switching to them will save you money. In this case simply sequentially switching from one company to another and making savings at every move would result in free insurance and perhaps even the insurance company paying you for the privilege of getting your insurance business.
If you look carefully at any commercial on whatever media, internet, TV, magazine, newspaper, billboards, etc., you’ll see some degree of exaggeration, deception, and sometimes outright lies, in the wording itself, by insinuation, and/or by omission. But then if selling product and making money is all important, which it is in our unbelievably materialistic society, it behoves the advertiser to make their products as desirable as possible, regardless of the means.
But this kind of deception and lies in some cases, such as in anything to do with health and disease, including bogus alternative therapies, drugs, food, and nutritional supplement marketing, can be misleading at best and downright dangerous with the worst offenders.
For example, outrageous claims have been made about the healing effects of glucosamine by itself or combined with a few other ingredients. Several months ago I happened upon a disgusting and predatory infomercial that consisted of a dialogue between a slick talking huckster and a female actress that was posing as a doctor.
The whole infomercial revolved around the scandalous claim that Supple, a glucosamine drink would cure any joint pain and disability, no matter how severe, in seven days. I even sent an email to the news station broadcasting the infomercial stating that “You should be ashamed of yourselves for allowing such blatant lying about the healing effects of Supple. It’s disgusting and fraudulent and you should be held accountable for allowing it to air.”
Of course I never heard back from them since most advertisers only care about the money coming in rather than what’s in the ads themselves, unless forced into some semblance of accountability either by government or legal challenges.
This evangelical, faith healing, type of approach can beguile people with serious disease into buying their products and not only waste their money on such scams but delay them from getting appropriate treatment, medications, and/or surgery from qualified and competent health professionals, which would improve their condition and quality of life rather than just drain their pocket books.
The bottom line is that there’s nothing wrong with presenting a combination of factual information and opinions to emphasize the benefits of products as long as they’re not meant to be so misleading and overstated so as to be fraudulent.
The Ugly about Nutritional Supplement Marketing
In each issue we’ll go into some detail about one or more of the ways nutritional supplement marketing is just plain ugly. One of these ways is in the deceptive naming of the ingredients in the product.
Deceptive Naming of Ingredients
Listing ingredients in ways that deceive and confuse seems to be more prevalent in the past few years is to use chemical or generic names for run of the mill ingredients to make them sound exotic and unique. Putting down an ingredient that most people can’t pronounce, especially when you back it up with outrageous claims, is just another way to maximize the bottom line without giving value in return.
To show you I mean let’s have a look at Advil, which is an over the counter medication for almost any kind of pain. The generic name for Advil is ibuprofen while the chemical name is 2-(4-isobutylphenyl)-propionic acid. Now most of us have heard of Advil and know what it is. Some of us have heard of ibuprofen and know that it’s the generic name for Advil. However, almost none of us would think of Advil if we heard or read the name 2-(4-isobutylphenyl)-propionic acid.
Now let’s look at BeReallyHuge, a fictional new nutritional supplement that I formulated containing the following revolutionary, patent pending, research driven, genetically superior, clinically tested, don’t take more than recommended or otherwise you’ll get too massive and ripped, ingredients that will unlock the true potential of whatever it is we’re trying to convince you that we can unlock:
- 2-(carbamimidoyl-methyl-amino) acetic acid
- 1,2-Dithiolane-3-Pentanoic Acid
- (2R,3R,4S,5R,6R)-2-[(2S,3S,4R,5R)-3,4-dihydroxy-2,5-bis(hydroxymethyl) oxolan-2-yl]oxy-6-(hydroxymethyl)oxane-3,4,5-triol
- 3',4',5,7-Tetrahydroxyflavan-3-Ol is, and Uncaria
Impressive isn’t it. In fact, however, the five main ingredients in BeReallyHuge are ones that most of us are familiar with:
- Alpha Lipoic Acid
- Sucrose (table sugar)
This is just another of many parlor tricks that are meant to make you think you’re getting something really different than the other supplements on the market.
Unfortunately in their quest to bring anything to the market that might have perceived value, the slightly altered compound may actually be counter productive in some ways that the company won’t mention.
A recent example is a product that contains two active ingredients:
· 1,2-Dithiolane-3-Pentanoic Acid
· 2-(Carbamimidoyl-Methyl-Amino) Ethoxyphosphonic Acid
These two ingredients translate into:
· Alpha lipoic acid.
It’s bad enough that they try to confuse you with the chemical names but they also make outrageous unsubstantiated claims for this product.
But their “patented” creatinol-O-phosphate ((2-(Carbamimidoyl-Methyl-Amino) Ethoxyphosphonic Acid)), a creatine analog that, along with 1,2-Dithiolane-3-Pentanoic Acid (alpha lipoic acid) is being touted as a “dormant muscle fiber activator” that is taking “The Bodybuilding World by Storm.”
Creatinol-O-phosphate or COP has some outdated research associated with it that proves nothing about using the compound orally. In fact some of the information in these studies done 3 decades ago have some disturbing information that suggest that the use of COP may in fact be counter productive in that it may decrease creatine and phosphorylated creatine in muscle, and may result in some other side effects.
Special Wording and Processes Mean Special Prices
Hand in hand with deceptive naming of ingredients are the special wording and processes that are meant to make the ingredients in certain products “superior” to what are basically the same ingredients in other products.
It’s the same game as in the deceptive naming of ingredients. Phrases such as intracellular activator, nano diffuse technology, patent pending technology or formula or ingredient, fat incinerator, lipolytic acceleration matrix, developed through extensive research, etc., provides an anabolic blast, gene activator, DNA remodelling matrix, xxx special technology, etc. and ad nauseum.
One product states that it’s product is “the first and only pre-training matrix to employ the powerful NOS Up-regulating whey "peptide fraction" ACTINOS2, delivered with MRI's "Instant Release (IR) Technology.” Impressive isn’t it until you look at the ingredients and it’s the same old same old, and not a very good formulation to boot. Just a lot of empty words meant to entice and in some cases deceive you so you’ll buy their product.
In the next article, among other things, we’ll cover some supplements that while touted as being beneficial are actually counter productive. For info on why nitric oxide (NO) supplements may be sabotaging your goals, see the information on nitric oxide in the FAQ section of this site.
We’ll also cover the dangers of using specific nutritional supplements by athletes who are subject to drug testing.