Making sense of supplements
Tests by Consumer Lab on a slew of vitamins and other dietary supplements have revealed many lacking in purity, quality and quantity, with others grossly overpriced. But you can find some deals out there, too. Some examples:
About: S-Adenosul methionine is normally formed in the body and plays a role in reactions. Popular for relieving depression, 30 percent of the brands tested failed basic quality tests and some brands charged more than $2.50 per 400mg dose.
Best deal: Vitamin Depot’s Double Strength SAMe, at $0.53 cents for a 400mg dose.
Bad bets: Maxam Nutraceutics SAMe, among the most expensive, didn’t even contain SAMe.
About: Widely used as a sleep aid, all 21 of the brands tested passed quality checks, but the suggested daily dosage ranged from 1mg to 50mg, and costs ranged wildly.
Best deal: Puritan’s Pride and Walmart’s Spring Valley brand, $0.04 per 3mg dose.
Bad bets: Natrol, $1.36 per 3mg dose.
About: Yohimbe, arginine and epimedium are among the go-to supplements for those looking to beat erectile dysfunction or libido loss, but only four out of 10 products passed quality testing.
Best deal: Swanson Superior Herbs Yohimbe, BodyTech LongJax MHT with Arginine, Magna-RX+, and Natrol L-arginine.
Bad bets: Ultimate Nutrition Platinum Series Yohimbe Bark Extract contained active ingredients not listed while only half of the yohimbine claimed on the packaging. Also, improperly sold for under-the-tongue use.
About: In a shootout of 60 multivitamin products, testers found problems with 12 brands. "There was almost no connection between price and quality," reads the report. "Many inexpensive multivitamins — ranging in price from 3 to 14 cents per day — passed every test. At the same time, several relatively expensive products failed that cost 50 cents or even more than $1 a day.
Adult: Nature’s Way Alive! Daily Energy Multi-Vitamin Multi-Mineral, $0.12/day.
Women’s: Kroger Complete Ultra Women’s Health and Walgreens One Daily for Women, $0.06/day.
Men’s: BJ’s Wholesale Club’s Berkley & Jensen Men’s Daily, $0.03/day.
Adult: Alpha Betic Specialized Nutrition Multivitamin, $0.47 per day and failed disintegration tests.
Women’s: Rainbow Light Certified Organics Women’s Multivitamin, $0.58 to $1.17 per day.
Men’s: Melaleuca Vitality, $0.73 per day and failed testing because it provided less than half of the vitamin A claimed.
Note: We previously reported on Mayo Clinic studies that suggest L-arginine could be useful for a number of ailments from heart attacks and migraines to erectile dysfunction and breast cancer, but researchers also noted the "possibility of serious side effects," including stomach discomfort, nausea, cramps, low blood pressure and changes in chemicals and electrolytes in the blood
When it comes to dietary supplements, you don't always get what you pay for.
That's what researchers found after a battery of recent tests conducted on everything from sleep aids to sex boosters. Setting aside whether the supplements actually work, the tests were designed to check whether the ingredients on the label matched the products inside.
Conducted by the nutrition watchdogs at Consumer Lab, the tests also compared often wildly fluctuating prices for essentially the same products.
"There are plenty of rip-offs out there," says Consumer Lab president Dr. Tod Cooperman. About one out of every five products his researchers test fails to pass basic quality standards that include having too much or not enough of the amounts claimed on the package — and sometimes none at all. Others contain dangerous levels of lead or other potentially dangerous ingredients.
The Food and Drug Administration doesn't regulate dietary supplements — meaning there's no guarantee that what's on the label is in the supplement — and no federal or state agencies routinely test supplements for quality prior to sale, Cooperman said.
Noting that the Web is awash in questionable companies making all kinds of claims, he said the actual "prevalence of rip-offs is hard to say as we tend to focus on more popular and established brands."
Products for sexual dysfunction and performance enhancement, for example, "have a pretty bad track record. Only four of 10 passed our most recent testing, and the evidence for many is weak. On top of that, there are many fly-by-night products coming from China that are spiked with Viagra-like chemicals that may be dangerous."
Seal of disapproval
The findings don't surprise Lori Tubbs, the Navy's nutritionist for the SEAL teams of Naval Special Warfare Group 2. Rip-offs abound, she said.
"Because the supplement industry isn't regulated, I could go to my grandfather's farm in upstate New York, take all the alfalfa that we feed our cows, make some pills, hire a retired SEAL and claim it's the best thing for — whatever — and I'd probably make lots of money," she said. "And it would be perfectly legal."
Tubbs said it's not uncommon for troops to fall victim to shoddy supplements. She's seen SEAL trainees suffer "huge, huge tendinitis and have big issues with hydration" because of bad supplements.
A physician friend recently sent her X-rays of a patient with "a whole vitamin — it didn't break down at all — stuck in the colon."
During testing in a food science class she teaches at San Diego State University, "we actually had a popular children's vitamin catch on fire in a broiler oven because there was so much petroleum in them. There can be a lot of junk in this stuff."
One trick she teaches her SEALs: Drop the supplement in a glass of water. If it doesn't dissolve within 30 minutes, it's no good.
"That's an indicator that there's a lot of petroleum and fillers in them," she said.
A few years ago, one SEAL was taking a popular multivitamin.
"I asked him for a few, and I put them in a glass of water. After three hours, those pills were still sitting there looking at us. Not good."
What to buy
Your safest bet for finding quality supplements, Tubbs said, is to look for seals of approval from independent testers such as Consumer Lab and U.S. Pharmacopeia, or USP. Also, check for the manufacturers' addresses and phone numbers — a sign of good faith.