As a consumer, how do you decide which supplement brand to trust? Do you buy “whatever” or is there criteria you consider beyond price? Given that supplements are not regulated and terms such as “natural,” “organic” and “clinically tested” have become almost meaningless, what is a person to do?
There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors involved with the marketing of vitamins. (See “Marketing Science vs. Real Science” posted previously.) Knowing the right questions to ask and what to look for can help you identify the good, the bad and the ugly. The Vitamin Checklist: How To Choose A Quality Supplement is a good place to start.
In addition to the Vitamin Checklist, below are some guidelines offered by Dr. Stephen Chaney. In addition, I offer up my “Cut To The Chase” letter which I have relied on for years to verify a brand’s claims beyond what appears in their marketing materials. I’ve sent it to many different companies, including those marketed directly through doctors, chiropractors and other medical professional offices.
If you really want to know how the brand you’re using stacks up, I encourage to send the company this letter/email/message. SPOILER ALERT: In the 30+ years of using this letter to cut through the hype, I have yet to have a single company (other than Shaklee) able to provide the info requested.
“Cut To The Chase” letter:
Dear XYZ Company:
I am extremely interested in XYZ Product Name. I have just one request. Please send me a complete bibliography of all your research that has been accepted for publication in refereed or peer reviewed professional journals. This should be published research done by scientists employed by you or those on your advisory board concerning work on the actual products you offer.
Representative reply received from a popular brand used by health professionals:
Dear Ms. Reed,
We don’t have that type of information available. XXXX has been on the market since 1929.
Since the components are mainly food ingredients, there has not been the type of independent research that you are asking for, done on this product. We basically rely on the information received from doctors and their patients, as they use the products.
Because our ingredients are mainly foods, it is not possible to patent the formulations to protect them and therefore spend the resources needed to conduct research like the pharmaceutical companies do.
We have over the years been involved in certain research projects with various universities, but I’m afraid that the information that we received, while important, is not likely what you are asking for. We do have a research and development department on site, but we are concentrating our efforts on picking the type of crops that would have the highest nutrient content, etc.
I’m sorry that I don’t have the information that you are requesting.
Ann M. Hxxxx
Vice President – Quality Control
At least this company was forthright in admitting not only that they don’t do clinical testing on their products, but also that the end consumers (in this case, patients) are the guinea pigs for whether or not results are achieved. Yikes!! In addition, I was also surprised to have them admit that the reason they don’t invest in studies is because the ingredients can’t be patented. In other words, there’s no money in it for them.
In response to this same letter, I’ve had others provide bibliographies of research, but upon closer look and follow-up questioning, none of the studies cited were done on their actual products. Many companies will cite research on components of their products, but not the actual finished product. Or they’ll have studies that look impressive but were not third party, peer reviewed or published.
The following will further help you distinguish real science from marketing science.
Guidelines for Evaluating Nutritional Companies
by Dr. Stephen Chaney, Ph.D.
(Dr. Chaney has a BS in Chemistry from Duke University and a PhD in Biochemistry from UCLA. He currently holds the rank of Professor at a major university where he has taught nutrition for medical students and runs an active cancer research program. Dr Chaney has published over 100 scientific articles and reviews in peer-reviewed scientific journals as well as two chapters on nutrition for one of the leading biochemistry textbooks for medical students.)
Nowadays everyone seems to claim that their nutrition products are backed by substantial clinical research. Here are some guidelines for evaluating these claims and deciding which company is the best.
1) Look for intervention clinical studies (those involving giving the supplement to real people). Studies in test tubes, cell culture dishes, and in animals don’t always predict what will happen in people. Epidemiologic or population studies (those that compare what different population groups eat, for example) are good for proposing hypotheses, but until they are tested in a clinical trial, they are not considered as proof of effectiveness. As for the clinical studies, if the study is measuring the delivery of a nutrient to the bloodstream, it does not need to be double blind or placebo-controlled. On the other hand, if the study is measuring a health outcome (for example, lower cholesterol or decreased pain) it should be both placebo controlled and double blind.
2) Look for studies that have been published in peer-reviewed medical journals. If a company tells “that their scientists have shown”, you have no way of evaluating the quality of their data unless it has been peer-reviewed and published in a credible journal. You also need to know that there are advertising journals as well as credible scientific journals. An advertising journal will accept any article for a price and there is no peer review to evaluate the quality of the data. If in doubt as to whether a journal is credible, check it out on PubMed, the National Library of Medicine web site. Finally, the same is true for studies reported in the newspaper, in magazines, and in books, even in those written by popular authors. Many of those articles can best be characterized as “nutrition fiction” and have not been peer-reviewed by scientists in the field.
3) The studies should be done with the company’s actual product in the population group it is designed for. Many companies will say, “their product contains ingredient “X” that has been shown to”. In fact, that doesn’t guarantee that the original studies were valid or that the ingredient will have that effect in their product. Companies will also quote studies that were done on other company’s products. Because Shaklee does more studies than anyone else does, many nutrition companies quote Shaklee’s clinical studies in support of their products. Of course, their products were formulated differently than Shaklee’s and they don’t have Shaklee’s quality controls, so there is no guarantee that their product will perform as well as Shaklee’s product.
4) Look for a large number of clinical studies on a variety of different products. Some companies have only one or two credible products and all of their clinical studies are focused on that product. They’d like you to think their other products are just as good, but in fact many are not backed by any credible research.
Make sure that they are not being selective in the studies they tell you about. For example, one major manufacturer of garlic touts two clinical studies, which show that their product lowers cholesterol, but neglects to tell you about two other studies that showed that their product had no effect on cholesterol levels.
If they tell you that such studies are impractical, too expensive, or unnecessary, don’t believe them. Shaklee has shown that if a company is committed to making the best products possible, such studies are essential. Shaklee has conducted 100+ clinical studies on a wide variety of their products, many of which have been published in peer-reviewed medical journals.
If knowledge is power, the above will give you what you need to make educated decisions about the brands you buy. I cannot encourage you enough to use the “Cut To The Chase” letter to investigate any brand you are considering.
Remember, the most expensive is the one that doesn’t work.