The Pseudoscience of the Supplement Industry

One would think that, being that we no longer live in the 1800s, we'd be past words like "tonic" and "elixir", products that claim to cure all that ails you. But thanks to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, the entire supplement industry is almost completely unregulated. And while supplement manufacturers are prohibited from making claims about diagnosing, preventing or treating any known diseases, there are innumerable other bogus claims they can make, and they can do so without the pesky burden of proving that their products actually do what they're supposed to, and do so safely.

$40 fruit juice and "muscle builders"

The berry concoction Mona Vie is, without question, one of the finest examples of a massive supplement scam. Yes, you are paying $40 a bottle for fruit juice. Unless, of course, you become a "distributor", in which case you might pay "only" $20 a bottle. (You'll have to forgive me if the pricing isn't exactly right – I'm going by memory from people who tried to sell me that crap.) The brilliance of Mona Vie is that the company itself makes virtually no claims whatsoever; rather, the consumers write testimonials, and they make the claims. Mona Vie has been claimed to relieve arthritis, reverse aging, put cancer into remission, strengthen joints and muscles, reduce inflammatory conditions, and any number of other things. Is there a shred of empirical evidence to back any of this up? Of course not. The company cleverly marketed the miraculous powers of the Acai Berry, because it is rich in antioxidants. Nevermind that many berries are rich in antioxidants, and megadoses of antioxidants has never been shown to do much of anything.

Perhaps the worst offender, though, is the bodybuilding supplement industry. Fitness magazines thrive on this industry, which litters every major fitness rag with mountains of ads claiming their concoctions will help you burn fat, build muscle, have more energy and mental focus, perform better in bed, or make your dick bigger. Some companies deliberately make their supplements sound like steroids, and some of them practically are steroids. Are they safe? Do they work? Guess what – they don't have to provide a shred of evidence for either before they sell you a $50 month's supply.

Think before you spend

Some companies claim to do their own research. But until claims are robustly verified by independent researchers who do not have a vested interest in selling a product and the results published in respected peer-reviewed scientific journals, one should be exceedingly wary of any supplement claims. I've seen multivitamins sold for $80 a bottle, anti-aging tonics, amphetamine-like stimulants and steroid-like testosterone boosters. At best, consumers who purchase such products are taking a gamble with both their pocketbook and their health. They product may work as advertised, but there are certainly no guarantees. The product may be harmless, but there are no guarantees.

Under the DSHEA, supplement companies are off the hook unless congress takes the explicit action of banning specific products. We saw this with the ban on both ephedrine and "pro-hormones" within the last decade. Unfortunately, for people who have suffered physically or, at best, wasted money on these products, it's too little too late. The supplement industry moves quickly, and banned products are quickly replaced by reformulated imitators and new wunderkinds. Although supplements can and often do have potent, drug-like effects on the human body, unlike the pharmaceutical industry the supplement industry can create any product, slap any label on, make any non-medical claim about it, and sell it at whatever premium the market will command. Buyer beware.

The best way to be healthy is still relatively simple: eat a diet primarily of whole grains, fruits, nuts, legumes, vegetables and – optionally – lean meats. Exercise vigorously on a regular basis. Presto, you're healthy. No tonics, no elixirs, no pseudo-steroids, no exorbitantly overpriced vitamins. It's unfortunate that in our culture, people have an exaggerated sense of realistic expectations. If losing a pound a week is good, then losing five pounds a week is that much better, right? If small doses of a nutrient are healthy, then large doses must be that much healthier, right? This simply is not the case, and the old adage holds true: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  Before you're sold on the miracle properties of any food or supplement, use a little common sense.

p.s. In the meantime, here's a trick for you. Try taking a Vitamin B supplement – just a simple oral B-complex will do. Notice that your urine will turn bright yellow. That, my dear friend, is the color of your money being pissed away, because once your body got the vitamin B it needed, it simply excreted the rest. Food for thought.


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