If a dietary supplement is on the store shelf, it must be safe and effective, right? Surely, somebody has tested whether the manufacturer’s claims are accurate?
If only that were true. Take the case of Airborne, a mix of vitamins, herbs, and minerals introduced in the early 1990s. Available in effervescent-tablet and powder form, it’s long been promoted as a way to stave off colds in germ-filled environments like airplanes.
In fact, the only ingredient in Airborne that’s been clinically proven to help treat colds is zinc. And a single packet contains so little of the substance (just 10 percent of the recommended daily allowance) that it’s doubtful whether the product has ever helped a single traveler stay healthy. In 2008, Airborne’s makers agreed to pay up to $30 million to settle a false-advertising suit by the Federal Trade Commission. But the product is still on the market today, billed as an “immune support supplement.”
The fact is, products like Airborne aren’t tested or approved by authorities such as the Food and Drug Administration. (While the FDA has the power to shut down distribution of supplements that are unsafe or mislabeled, enforcement actions are infrequent, and manufacturers themselves are responsible for assuring safety.) Nor do supplements attract much attention from watchdog organizations like Consumer Reports. So consumers are mostly on their own to evaluate product quality. And that’s a situation that frustrates Neil Thanedar, the co-founder of San Francisco-based LabDoor.
“You assume that everything on the market is safe and it’s fine to take it,” says Thanedar, who previously ran an FDA-certified product safety lab in Ann Arbor, MI. In reality, he says, fewer than half of all nutraceutical products contain the ingredients listed on the bottle in the amounts claimed—and fewer yet deliver any real benefit. Yet there’s little way to know which are which.
LabDoor—half independent testing lab, half Web and mobile publishing operation—is generating the data its says will put consumers back in control. The company’s online reports rank nutraceutical products on safety and value, directing consumers to the manufacturers and brands whose claims actually check out in its laboratory tests.
“The two things we always look at are purity and efficacy,” Thanedar says. “Are you only getting the things you thought you were buying? And if those things were actually in the product, would it actually work?”
In October, LabDoor went public with its first big batch of scientific reports, covering 25 different brands of energy drinks. This week it unveiled 50 new reports on protein powders and drinks. The idea is to explore a new product category every month, with premium access to all of LabDoor’s reports available for a $50 annual subscription. (Reports on fish-oil pills and multivitamins are up next.)
This month’s LabDoor data on protein supplements contains some rude surprises for gym rats. For one thing, the protein products tested generally contained far more sodium than their nutrition labels claimed—almost 92 percent more, on average. The worst offender in LabDoor’s tests was Cytosport’s Muscle Milk RTD, which contained 360 percent more sodium than claimed on the label.
Thanedar doesn’t think the high sodium levels are accidental. Sodium promotes water retention, which can artificially boost the muscle-size gains promised by protein brands. “Rapid water retention can fake that look quickly,” Thanedar says. “The entire industry is using the exact same method of tricking consumers.” And it’s more than just a matter of working illusions: In a market where consumers are already surrounded by salty foods, manufacturers’ propensity for spiking protein supplements with even more sodium could have health consequences for some people.
Equally interesting was LabDoor’s finding that the most expensive protein supplements didn’t necessarily rank highest in quality. In fact, while prices for the powders tested ranged from $0.69 per serving to $5.30 per serving, the company’s scientists found no significant correlation between price and quality.
That means supplement buyers can’t assume that the expensive name brands like GNC are best—they should be searching for protein powders that … Next Page »