Don’t Trust the Label on Your Supplements
It doesn’t always tell the full story. Independent testers have arrived to fill in the gaps.
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Tod Cooperman drives the same way he takes nutritional supplements: in a reasonable and prudent manner. It’s a Friday morning in February, and he’s bringing me to his research office, a suite in the hills of New Jersey, about an hour outside New York City, where he has enough vitamins, herbal concoctions, and powdered bone broth to satisfy a doomsday prepper. When we arrive, boxes of green tea are spilling out of overstuffed totes on the floor. The shelves are lined with bottles containing ginkgo, ashwagandha, and CBD. Cooperman grabs some apple cider vinegar pills. “People take it for weight loss,” he says. “But the concentration of acetic acid in this is so high, it should be labeled a poison.”
Cooperman earned his medical degree before founding ConsumerLab, which has been vetting dietary supplements for the past 19 years. The day I visit, Mark Anderson, the head of research, pulls up a colorful thin-layer chromatography readout, which shows that all the apple cider vinegars he and his team tested came from real fruit and weren’t just spray-dried acetic acid (an old cost-saving trick of the trade). Recently, however, ConsumerLab outed a brand of turmeric capsules that it found had virtually no curcumin, the ingredient believed to make the bright yellow-orange spice effective.
Such findings aren’t uncommon. ConsumerLab exists in large part because the Food and Drug Administration, the federal agency charged with regulating the $30 billion dietary-supplement industry, doesn’t have the authority to oversee supplements in the same way it does over-the-counter medicines. This means the feds spot-check for compliance but allow supplement manufacturers to self-regulate unless some serious problem arises. As a result, quality varies widely and consumers are often flying blind.
In January, the Office of Dietary Supplements, a division of the National Institutes of Health, released the “Dietary Supplements for Exercise and Athletic Performance” fact sheet. But while it does tell you which supplements can potentially improve your performance, it doesn’t tell you which whey-protein product comes loaded with cholesterol, or which pea powder has way more sodium than the label claims. As Cooperman puts it, independent testers aim to answer consumers’ most pressing product questions. “Is it safe? Is it going to interact with anything I’m taking? Am I even taking it properly, in the right dose? Should I take it at certain times of the day? Does this product even have what it claims?” he says. “We address everything that we can along that whole spectrum of questioning in our reports.” ConsumerLab has published reviews of more than 100 product types, from vitamin C to powdered bone broth, and adds around 16 new categories each year.
The FDA spot-checks for compliance but allows supplement manufacturers to self-regulate unless some serious problem arises.
As supplements continue to flood the market, there’s been an uptick in independent testing companies. Another is Labdoor, a startup founded in 2012 in San Francisco, which ranks various supplements on a 100-point scale for label accuracy, purity, nutritional value, efficacy, and safety. Neil Thanedar, its founder and CEO, says the company’s tests routinely verify highly rated products. “There are great protein powders, great fish oils, great vitamin D.” But there’s so much variation in quality and in price, he says, consumers often can’t tell from the label which products are worth the money. “You just assume, ‘Oh, they’re all protein powders. They’re all vitamin D,’ ” Thanedar says. “But some of the biggest differences out of any category in a store are in the supplements aisle.”
Not all testing services take the same approach. Nonprofits like U.S. Pharmacopeia and NSF International give seals to certified supplements. Labdoor makes money selling products through click referrals, but its evaluations are available for free; ConsumerLab has a subscription model, charging users a fee to access its reports. But there are definite overlaps in the findings. Surprisingly, if you buy products from multilevel marketers such as Amway and Herbalife, or if you order from InfoWars, the conspiracy-mongering media empire, you’ll probably end up with quality ingredients in roughly the quantities that are listed on the label. The catch is that you’ll pay considerably more than for the brands typically found at GNC or in supermarkets. The largest variation in quality comes with herbal products and complex formulations, like multivitamins and prenatal supplements. With most single-ingredient vitamins and minerals, cost rather than quality tends to be the distinguishing factor.
As most of us have heard by now, it’s both possible and advisable to get all your essential vitamins and minerals from whole foods. Still, people who work at these testing services aren’t above taking supplements. Thanedar, who is 30, uses B vitamins, fish oil, and protein powder. Cooperman, 55, opts for B12, vitamin D in the winter, and iron after donating blood. In general, these types of single-ingredient vitamins and minerals usually check out as free of contaminants and containing the dose claimed on the label. But while you’ll find the recommended daily allowance listed, the “tolerable upper limits”—the point after which a potentially beneficial supplement runs the risk of doing harm—are not something you’ll find on labels. (The Office of Dietary Supplements, ConsumerLab, and Labdoor provide these numbers.)
Over lunch, I ask the ConsumerLab staff about the worst products they’ve come across. Liquid creatine usually falls short, Cooperman says. “Don’t buy gummies,” Anderson adds, saying that they don’t always provide the iron and vitamin D they claim. Cooperman tells me he submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to the FDA and learned that the agency’s audits turned up quality control issues and a lack of protocols, among other problems, at 62 percent of supplement manufacturers in 2016. Which is to say, it’s probably smart to look beyond the label.
Athlete’s Cheat Sheet
According to the latest recommendations from the Office of Dietary Supplements, these boosts may be worth your bucks.
Research suggests that beet juice may improve performance and endurance, but skip the beetroot powder for now—it’s not known if it provides the same effects.
Caffeine can help you exercise longer, and it’s reasonably safe up to 400 or 500 milligrams—about four cups of coffee.
Creatine loading, or taking a high dose followed by smaller “maintenance” amounts, helps supply muscles with energy, but only for short periods of exertion. Think high-intensity interval training, not a long-distance swim.
Correcting any deficiencies in iron can improve your workout, although there’s considerable debate and conflicting evidence surrounding what exactly qualifies as “deficient.”
Most athletes already eat adequate amounts of high-quality protein, but supplemental protein appears safe in moderation. (That’s about 136 grams per day for someone weighing 150 pounds.)