Sales arguments or documentation?

What should your choice of food supplements rely on?

kosttilskudAre manufacturers of nutritional supplements making a whole-hearted effort of documenting their products? Or do they often get away with hot air? If you browse through the web sites of Danish supplement producers it seems rather obvious that only very few are actually able to put their money where their mouth is.

What do you think of the following phrases?...... do they seem convincing to you?

  • All our products are developed and manufactured in Denmark and are based on serious research results from all over the world
  • When you purchase natural remedies, fish oil, vitamins or other food supplements from our range of products you can rest assured that the their content of active ingredients always complies with the most recent science.

As persuasive as they may seem at first glance, these somewhat "hollow" phrases are what you find on countless web sites that are designed to look highly professional and convincing. At closer scrutiny, however, what the manufacturers are really saying here pretty much boils down to something like this:

  • we have developed and manufactured some nutritional supplements and hope that the ingredients will be absorbed and provide benefits
  • we have studied some of the research that has been conducted by others and tried to copy the products that were used in these studies
    unfortunately, we have not been able to conduct studies of our own to document that our products are in fact bio-available and work as expected - but
  • we hope this is the case

Consumers are being misled

Unfortunately, many consumers trust non-validated products like these and buy them in good faith. Who can blame them? After all, they look like the real deal. Sadly, only very few companies conduct proper studies on their own products, simply because of the expense involved and because it is so much more convenient to make money on cheap copy products and smooth, yet unsubstantiated sales pitches.

Documentation is expensive

It is a costly affair to document a product. Research is extremely expensive and the costs involved in making proper documentation affects the retail price of the products, making them more expensive in the end. The problem with the majority of supplement manufacturers riding piggyback on the few who are willing to conduct studies of their own is that it distorts the competition. The freeloading companies use the research as leverage for their own products, yet they have not spent a single dime on the documentation. The consumers, for obvious reasons, are unaware of this. In addition, it is often impossible to distinguish a cheap, undocumented, and inferior product from an expensive product that is proper documented. The price difference alone will often dictate the consumer's choice. Ironically, what people consider a saving ends up being the exact opposite - a waste of money - simply because the quality of the supplement is unaccounted for.

Short-changed twice

There will always be manufacturers who look for loopholes. Not surprisingly, they are the ones who choose to produce cheap copy products in pursuit of easy business. The fact is that documentation is both expensive, complicated, and time-consuming, still it is the only way to ensure supplements of a reliable quality.
It is only through studies conducted with finished preparations - not just the raw material in the product - consumers can get the guarantee they are entitled to. In fact, a first-class raw material can easily be destroyed at any stage of the manufacturing process if it is not handled properly with the right technique. Consumers who buy such products get short-changed twice. First they pay for a product that is worthless. Secondly, they miss out on the health benefits that they had expected to obtain.

No official control with supplements

So where are the health authorities in all of this? Well, in Denmark there is no official approval system for nutritional supplements like the tight and rigid control that you have with medical drugs. Medicine is controlled by the Danish Medicines Agency that approves medical drugs for targeted purposes. With nutritional supplements, however, there is no such control. Supplements are handled by the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration (DVFA) that operates with a special reporting system for supplements where manufacturers must report their own product(s) to the DVFA along with information about the effect of the product, the active ingredients, the additives, etc. The DVFA does not control the quality as such. In fact, it is the manufacturers themselves who are responsible for ensuring that the content in the product corresponds with the label declaration. It is a system based on freedom with responsibility but where does that leave the consumer in terms of safety? Where is the documentation showing the active ingredients are indeed absorbed in the digestive system, let alone work as expected? Those answers blow in the wind.

Easy to manufacture at low cost abroad

Because of the current setup and slack control with nutritional supplements it is easy to start up a supplement business in Denmark. All you need to do is to locate a factory somewhere abroad where you can manufacture the pills at a low cost. A good place to look would be India. Once that is taken care of, you submit an ingredient list with the FDVA together with a copy of the finished package design. If both of these comply with Danish legislation you can start manufacturing your product and sell it via stores or on the net.

Useful advice for making the right choice

The question is, what precautions can the consumer take to find reliable and effective products? The easy solution is Google. A few clicks help you weed out the most obvious pitfalls. All you need is to plot in the name of any given manufacturer along with key words such as "research" or "documentation". If the only thing you find are web pages with self-glorifying clichés like those listed in the beginning of this article, it pretty much speaks for itself. On the other hand, if you are linked to pages where manufacturers specifically proclaim that they have conducted and even published any number of scientific studies that are carried out with their own products, possibly accompanied by a description of the studies, it is much more convincing. Even in such cases, there are limitations:

The description of research results is normally superficial and does not go into detail but there is a reason for that. In Denmark, health authorities do now allow supplement manufacturers to describe research where health benefits are obtained with the use of supplements, as there are very strict rules for any health claims that are made for such products (as opposed to the rules for medical drugs)

  • If, for instance, a study has investigated the effect of a nutrient such as selenium or coenzyme Q10 in connection with heart disease and a positive result has been observed, the manufacturer is not allowed to pass on this information. It would be a violation of the marketing law - even if it is scientifically correct and documented.
  • A refined search may clarify matters. For instance, if you look specifically for information about what product was used in a given study and actually manage to find it, you can connect the dots yourself. Sometimes, you need to be a little creative but there are ways. Another way of going about it is to contact the manufacturer and requesting a copy of the research that has been carried out with their product.

Many studies have been made with coenzyme Q10 and show a good effect of the substance on heart disease, hypertension, and certain neurodegenerative conditions. However, the majority of these studies are carried out with a limited number of commercially available products.

In Europe, there are hundreds of Q10 products on the market, yet only a fraction of them have been used in studies. Most manufacturers or importers simply write that their Q10 products are based on research. That way, consumers are led to think that these products have the same properties as those which are properly documented.

It pays off to be attentive, especially because a host of vital information never reaches the consumers. Here is an example: Even if a manufacturer uses a superior Q10 raw material, the finished Q10 supplement may end up being worthless if the wrong manufacturing technique is used. It is technically challenging to make Q10 bio-available to the human digestive system and in order for this to happen, you need to use a special technique that frees the individual Q10 molecule. That way, they are able pass through the intestinal wall and reach the bloodstream. So far, only one manufacturer has been able to document that their method works.