The majority of adults in the United States take one or more dietary supplements either every day or occasionally. Today’s dietary supplements include vitamins, minerals, herbals and botanicals, amino acids, enzymes, and many other products. Dietary supplements come in a variety of forms: traditional tablets, capsules, and powders, as well as drinks and energy bars.
The U.S. nutritional supplements market is large, and is projected to grow at an average rate of just over 6% per year through 2018, when sales should reach $16.4 billion. Factors driving this increase include an aging population, rising consumer involvement in personal health, and a growing expectation of personalization for virtually all services and products.
Over the last several years, consumers’ comfort with private label substitutes for branded supplements has strengthened. Retailers like Walmart and Costco have fueled the trend by continuing to enhance their own private label offerings through new branding and formulations, improved packaging, and in-store consumer education. Many retailers are also now positioning their store brands as “lifestyle brands,” in an attempt to set them apart and build loyalty with customers. The attractive margins and consumer loyalty that the private label brands have garnered, has prompted retailers to continue investing in private label supplements. But with the growth have come problems.
The New York State attorney general’s office recently accused four major retailers of selling fraudulent and potentially dangerous herbal supplements and demanded that they remove the products from their shelves.
The authorities said they had conducted tests on top-selling store brands of herbal supplements at four national retailers—GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart—and found that four out of five of the products did not contain any of the herbs on their labels. The tests showed that pills labeled medicinal herbs often contained little more than cheap fillers like powdered rice, asparagus and houseplants, and in some cases substances that could be dangerous to those with allergies.
Among the attorney general’s findings was a popular store brand of ginseng pills at Walgreens, promoted for “physical endurance and vitality,” that contained only powdered garlic and rice. At Walmart, the authorities found that its ginkgo biloba, a Chinese plant promoted as a memory enhancer, contained little more than powdered radish, houseplants and wheat—despite a claim on the label that the product was wheat- and gluten-free.
Three out of six herbal products at Target—ginkgo biloba, St. John’s wort and valerian root, a sleep aid—tested negative for the herbs on their labels. But they did contain powdered rice, beans, peas and wild carrots. And at GNC, the agency said, it found pills with unlisted ingredients used as fillers, like powdered legumes, the class of plants that includes peanuts and soybeans, a hazard for people with allergies.
The FDA regulations for dietary supplements are different from those for prescription or over-the-counter drugs. Unlike drugs, which must be approved by the FDA before they can be marketed, dietary supplements do not require pre-market review or approval by the FDA. While the supplement company is responsible for having evidence that their products are safe and the label claims are truthful and not misleading, they do not have to provide that evidence to the FDA before the product is marketed.
The FDA has established quality standards for dietary supplements to help ensure their identity, purity, strength, and composition. These standards are designed to prevent the inclusion of the wrong ingredient, the addition of too much or too little of an ingredient, the possibility of contamination, and the improper packaging and labeling of a product. In addition, several independent organizations offer quality testing and allow products that pass these tests to display their seals of approval. These seals of approval provide assurance that the product was properly manufactured, contains the ingredients listed on the label, and does not contain harmful levels of contaminants. These seals of approval do not guarantee that a product is safe or effective. Organizations that offer this quality testing include:
- U.S. Pharmacopeia
- NSF International
As the experience in New York illustrates, when choosing dietary supplements, you are well advised to stick with professional brands that have established their reputation for safety and quality over time.