At a recent university-sponsored conference on innovations in nutritional and fitness products, there was a discussion about the increasing number of fraudulent claims associated with such products in the market. When one speaker, a principal in a firm investing in start-ups specializing in fitness and nutrition, was asked how to detect ineffective or fraudulent products, he was unable to give a useful answer.

“It’s very difficult because often the claims are made up or supported by faulty research published in company-owned or for-profit journals. If it works, it is probably not a fraud,” he concluded. Someone from the audience responded with, “Yes, but placebos work also.”  

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can barely keep up with the proliferation of fraudulent health products. Some make claims that cannot possibly be produced by the ingredients; others contain substances which are not allowed to be sold due to serious side effects, or must be prescribed only by a physician. Often states, as well as the FDA, step in to expose the deceptive nature of claims made by supplement manufacturers. In a well-publicized case a few years ago the New York State Attorney General’s office tested the contents of several popular herbal supplements and found either none of the advertised active ingredients in the product or levels too low to be effective. This past winter, the New York State Attorney General and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charged a company that claimed its product was shown in clinical trials to improve memory and cognition with making, “...False and unsubstantiated claims...” because the study cited by the company actually showed the product not working any better than a placebo. Yet the advertisements, seen frequently on television, were so compelling that the sales topped $165 million.

The most common claims seen on the labels of such dubious products are for weight loss, sexual performance (erectile dysfunction), memory loss, and mood.  Some claims are almost magical in the sweep of their promises: A New York firm claimed its dietary supplement treated senile dementia, brain atrophy, atherosclerosis, kidney dysfunction, gangrene, depression and osteoarthritis along with lung, cervical and prostate cancer. Alas, for anyone now wanting to buy a product that will cure all that is wrong with you, it is no longer available. U.S Marshals seized it after a request by the FDA in 2012.

Personal testimonials are often so compelling that they sell a product. Who hasn’t looked at the before and after pictures of someone who used a weight-loss product and marveled at the change? Statements like, “I am no longer hungry, depressed, diabetic, or bald!“ beckon to us from the internet, tabloid magazines, newspaper advertisements and television spots. These people must be real, one thinks…and if he grows hair, maybe I will also.

Health products claiming a quick fix such as, “Cover your bald spot by next Tuesday,” or, “Lose your double chin by this afternoon!” are also hard to resist, but should be regarded with as much suspicion as someone trying to sell you a bridge. Glue is a quick fix; health products rarely are. The FDA tells us to beware of health products attempting to gain a marketing edge by claiming that they are all natural. By the way, snake venom is also natural.

One easy way to detect whether a claim is legitimate or not is whether the term, “Miracle” is used on the label. Look at it this way, if the words “miracle cure” are attached to the ad, consider it a miracle that anyone is foolish enough to buy the product.

But of course there are many over-the-counter (non-prescription) supplements that work, are safe, contain the dose of active ingredients printed on the label, and don’t hide drugs deemed illegal by the FDA. If a combination of vitamin D and calcium promises bone health in the amounts recommended by physicians, such a supplement will help to restore bone cell growth and decrease bone fragility. Supplemental vitamins, minerals and protein will help restore depleted levels of these nutrients due to prolonged illness, chemotherapy, or gastrointestinal impairment. Again, it is imperative to check with a healthcare giver about quantities; more is not always better.

But what if you are not sure whether the claims are to be believed. What should you do?

Ask your health care provider. Take a picture of the ingredient label on a product you are thinking of buying, and ask whether any of the ingredients actually do what they are supposed to. Use the internet to look up the ingredients to see what studies support the claims of the product. Write to the FDA.

Example: A product relieving anxiety and stress claims that the ingredients, “…promote serotonin synthesis.” But the main ingredients are chamomile and valerian, herbal products that may cause drowsiness; these do not promote serotonin. A physician will know that the product is incapable of increasing serotonin synthesis.

Here’s another: A product containing saffron extract as its main ingredient claims, ”…Reduces cravings, boosts metabolism, blocks appetite, lowers blood pressure and increases energy.” Investigating whether there are any studies linking saffron extract to all these wondrous health effects may seem like a nuisance, but will save money and possibly, ill side effects.

Signing up for the FDA Consumer Updates page is essential for anyone routinely buying supplements because of their weekly descriptions of products containing hidden drugs, fillers, or bits and pieces of insects or twigs. Recently, the agency has warned consumers about more than 100 products containing illegal drugs; most of these products are sold for sexual enhancement, weight loss and bodybuilding.

Avoiding supplements that may not work, may not contain the ingredients listed, or contain ingredients that are harmful cannot be ensured. But a little homework and help from the FDA make the odds better that what you buy is safe and effective.

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