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Can you Trust your Nutritional Supplement Brand?

Over the past few decades, millions of Canadians have incorporated nutritional supplements into their daily routine. According to the Canadian Community Health Survey – Nutrition[1], 45.6% of Canadians aged one year and older (approximately 15.7 million people) used at least one nutritional supplement in 2015. [1] In terms of sales, the natural health product industry contributes $3 billion to the Canadian economy.[2] South of the border, the statistics are even more impressive. According to a new economic impact report funded by the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), 76% of American adults (170 million people) take dietary supplements,[3] and the dietary supplement industry contributes $121.6 billion to the U.S. economy.[4]

The booming natural health products and supplements industry is no longer going under the radar of big investors, and it seems like everyone now wants a piece of this highly competitive market. As a result, clinicians and consumers are presented with an increasing variety of brands and products to choose from. Nevertheless, 87% of Americans say they have confidence in the safety, quality, and effectiveness of their supplements.[5]

Even with this near-universal public endorsement, as a savvy health care provider or consumer, you may still wonder if you can trust your nutritional supplements brand. It’s important to remember that all supplements NOT created equal. Here are some of the key points that I consider as a naturopathic doctor when I look for trustworthy brands:

  1. Reputation. First and foremost, I want to know if a nutritional supplement brand that I considering has a solid and standing reputation among my peers. Is this a brand recommended by other health care providers? How long has the company been around? Did you hear positive comments and testimonies about their products, or did you only find out about them through paid advertisement? These are all excellent basic questions to ask.
  2. Ownership: Socially-conscious consumers often wonder who does the company or brand belong to? Are you buying from a grassroots operation, a small company, or a multinational corporation, such as Nestlé? This matters because it can give some insight into the operations of a company, which helps consumers determine if the company aligns with their own values. As a practitioner, I want to know that the company I purchase from, and recommend to my patients not only supplies quality nutritional supplements, but also makes socially conscious decisions. This includes: sustainable sourcing, eco-friendly packaging, and transparency. A common complaint for large conglomerate corporations is that their commitment tends to shift from ‘cleaner’ and more effective products solely to increased profitability for their shareholders. These changes in ownership and ingredient quality often happen quietly, over time, and unbeknownst to the customers; they only draw our attention when we notice a decrease in the efficiency of our trusted and beloved products. This brings us to another threat posed by mergers and take-overs of smaller, independently owned companies by bigger, public listed companies: monopoly. In any given industry, competition between  different companies ensures that consumers have access to a variety of products of different values at competing prices. When the various brands are concentrated among a few big industry players, they dictate the rules! For example, these companies could eliminate certain nutritional supplements competing with their other brands – including their prescription drugs – or raise their prices significantly. These corporations can also influence health policy makers through lobbying activities. Of course, this isn’t always the case with all large companies, and many maintain their integrity by participating in socially conscious activities, however consumers still must remain vigilant, and hold companies to account.
  3. Scientific integrity.
    • Research and development. Is this brand involved in clinical trials to test the efficacy of their products, and to develop new ones? Or are they simply piggy-backing on other brands’ investments? Current Canadian law provides 20 years of patent protection to pharmaceutical companies who release a new drug.  Patents protect the investor for a given time period during which other companies cannot copy their products (called generics), so that they have time to recuperate their investment and make a profit on the drugs that they developed. However, nutritional supplements can’t be patented, and as a result, few companies invest in the research and development of new supplements and delivery technologies. They simply copy what others are doing, and use the results of their competitors’ research to promote and sell their own products. Moreover, these ‘me-too’ companies may not even use the same molecules, ingredients, dosage, or delivery technologies used in their competitors’ trials. Make sure that the brand that you support invests in developing the best nutritional supplements via academic collaboration, research, and the development of innovative delivery technologies which help ensure maximum bioavailability for your supplements.
    • Product quality: How do I know as a clinician or as a consumer that a brand delivers quality nutritional supplements?
      • Certifications: The first step is to make sure that the brand complies with three basic certifications: (note: these may change depending on different jurisdictions)
        • Good Manufacturing Processes (GMPs) are manufacturing standards developed by the Natural Health Products Directory (NHPD) of Health Canada to provide natural health product industry manufacturers guidance in producing safe products. They refer to aspects of production and testing, such as: personnel qualifications, sanitation, equipment maintenance, and record keeping. You want to look for a brand that adheres to GMPs or even exceeds these standards.
        • Natural Product Number (NPN) or other  regulatory compliance indicators. NPNs are assigned by Health Canada to products whose manufacturer has submitted enough human evidence to support their health claim, and has fulfilled all requirements for the registration of the product. It certifies that the product is safe and effective when used according to its label.
        • Third party testing means that the brand is performing quality control testing using third party testing companies, ensuring accurate, unbiased results.
      • Quality ingredients & Label claims: The second step is to verify that the brand only uses the best quality ingredients in scientifically-established dosages and delivered through the best available technology.
        • Most bioavailable forms. The biochemical form an ingredient comes in can greatly impact the efficacy of a supplement. For example, does the brand offers the most bioavailable forms of vitamins and minerals such as 5-methyltetrahydrafolate (5-MTHF), instead of folic acid (vitamin B9), among others?
        • Scientifically-established dosages. Does this brand provide dosages validated in clinical trials or randomly established? For example, do the b vitamins in their b-vitamin complex all come in 25, 50 or 100 mg? Do they add negligible, non-therapeutic amount of trendy substances such as green tea or ginger in their product just to appeal to natural health enthusiasts?
        • Best delivery technologies. Many natural substances such, as curcuma have shown incredible results in clinical trials when administered via injections or in vitro studies, but fail to deliver comparable results when ingested orally due to their poor bioavailability or stability. Does the brand you’re considering invest and use the best delivery methods, ensuring that your nutritional supplements provide all expected health benefits? Are these nutritional supplements backed up by tangible, measurable results?
        • Non-Medicinal Ingredients. Does the brand use cheap binders and fillers such as magnesium oxide, polysorbate 80, talc, etc.? What about other additives such as artificial sweeteners, colors, additives and preservatives? Does the brand strive to source the purest ingredients with minimal allergen risk? Does the label claim that the products are free from common allergens such as gluten, dairy, soy, corn, peanuts, and yeast? Further when any of these ingredients must be used in production, is the company declaring it? Are they being transparent about what they add to the product as whatever is added to any raw materials?
        • Organic & Non-GMO. Does the brand choose non-GMO and organic suppliers when possible and practical?
        • Vegetarian & vegan. Does the brand carry a reasonable variety of nutritional supplements to maximize inclusion of different groups based on their dietary restrictions? This includes kosher and halal diets when possible. 
  4. Socially conscious, ethical, and sustainable. Last but not least, we should find out if the brand is socially conscious. Are they mindful of their environmental impact? Do they recycle, use recycled material, and try to reduce their carbon footprint? Do they ensure that their raw material is harvested or produced in the most ethical and sustainable conditions possible? These are all important factors to consider and hold our nutritional supplements brands accountable for.

When faced with such a variety of different brands offered at very different prices, we must take a closer look at the companies we’re choosing to support with our economic power. What might initially seem like a bargain may not be such a good deal after all, especially if the brand does not deliver on its promises, reduces another company’s ability to create innovative and efficient nutritional supplements, or is toxic on both a physiological and environmental level. One would naturally assume that natural health products companies would also be environmentally-friendly and socially conscious but unfortunately, our industry has not escaped the reality of the capitalistic system, and it’s up to us the consumers to educate ourselves, do our research, and invest wisely in a brand that we can trust.

[1] The Canadian Community Health Survey – Nutrition is a national health survey that collects information from Canadians in all provinces about their eating habits and use of nutritional supplements, as well as other health factors.

[1] Statistics Canada, Health Fact Sheets. Use of nutritional supplements, 2015. Released June 20, 2017. https://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-625-x/2017001/article/14831-eng.htm

[2] Canadian Health Food Association. https://chfa.ca/en/about-us/index.html

[3] Council for Responsible Nutrition. Economic Report: Healthy Products Support Healthy Economy. http://www.crnusa.org/

[4] Nutraceuticals World. Supplement Industry Contributes $122 Billion To U.S. Economy. https://www.nutraceuticalsworld.com/contents/view_online-exclusives/2016-06-10/supplement-industry-contributes-122-billion-to-us-economy

[5] Council for Responsible Nutrition. Economic Report: Healthy Products Support Healthy Economy. http://www.crnusa.org/

Chantal Ann Dumas, ND

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