SUPPLEMENT WATCH September 1997 — U.S. Edition


In 1994, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. But many of the claims the law permits aren't educational ... unless the class is Marketing 101.

A few claims on labels are honest. Take Natrol My Favorite Natural Vitamin E. It's fair to say that vitamin E provides "antioxidant protection for heart and all body tissues."

Most other claims, while truthful, are misleading. It doesn't matter if they are "structure-or-function" claims that come with a disclaimer saying that the FDA hasn't evaluated them -- or "look-the-other-way" claims that the FDA also hasn't evaluated.

With luck, these six examples may help you see through some of the tricks. But the only way to really know if a claim is honest is to find out yourself (or read in Nutrition Action) if there's good evidence to back it up.

Don't expect the company -- or the FDA -- to do it for you.

Urine Business

In 1994, Jerry Avorn and his colleagues at Harvard Medical School found that drinking ten ounces of cranberry juice cocktail a day can reduce the risk of urinary tract infections in older women.

That explains why the label on Nature's Resource Cranberry says "research indicates Cranberry Fruit may help maintain a healthy urinary tract by preventing the adhesion of bacteria (E. coli) to the bladder."

Only one catch. "We don't know what the active ingredient in cranberry juice beverage is," says Avorn. "And we don't know whether it survives drying and scrunching."

And let's say that what's in Nature's Resource Cranberry is active. Two capsules equal one ounce of cranberry juice cocktail, says the label. So to get the ten ounces that cut the risk of infections in Avorn's study, you'd need 20 capsules a day.

Guess you could just buy a new bottle every five days.

Feel The Burn

"Carnitine is an essential cofactor in the production of energy from fats (lipids)," says the label on Arrow Formulas L-Carnitine 250.

True. But don't expect the recommended one to six capsules a day to burn away unwanted body fat or make you feel more energetic.

"The healthy body already has all the carnitine it can use," says exercise physiologist David Costill of Ball tat University. "The extra is simply excreted."

Carnitine failed to improve lap times in college swimmers or change how much fat was burned by eight people in a Mayo Clinic study.

"Would the ordinary person benefit from carnitine?' asks Peggy Borum, a carnitine expert at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "The answer is no." L-Carnitine is good for burning one thing: a hole in your pocketbook.

Fool's Gold

Who wouldn't want a box of Pharmaton's Ginkoba, the Mental Alertness Dietary Supplement? Anything that "improves memory & concentration" and "enhances mental focus" has got to be a big seller.

Ditto for Nature's Way Ginkgold. Whether you're young or old, "total mental sharpness" has appeal.

Pharmaton's label "affirms that the statements presented on this package are supported by well-controlled clinical studies."

But no good studies have tested ginkgo biloba on healthy people's ability to remember or concentrate. There's only one good study on people with mild memory problems-as opposed to people institutionalized for dementia-and its results are not convincing.

"There is no sound scientific evidence to support the use of ginkgo," says Thomas Crook, a former chief of the Geriatric Psychopharmacology Program at the National Institute of Mental Health who is familiar with studies on ginkgo.

"From my perspective, the value of ginkgo is unknown."

Evidence Deficit Disorder

To most people, "ADD" stands for "attention deficit disorder."

So many parents would naturally be interested in Nature's Plus Pedi-Active A.D.D. The words "Advanced Dietary Delivery System" are also on the label, but in smaller print.

We asked Nature's Plus if it had evidence that its combination of phosphatidylserine and other substances found in the brain helps kids with ADD.

So far: no answer.

"Frankly, we were very interested in learning about the supporting science," says Lucas Meyer, the company that supplies Nature's Plus with its phosphatides. "We've asked for it, but have not yet received any if formation." Lucas Meyer is starting a pilot study to see if phosphatidviserine can help kids with attention deficits. Apparently, Nature's Plus couldn't wait.

One At A Time

"Clinically shown to improve the ratio of lean muscle to fat," says the label on KAL Chromium Picolinate 200. Clinically shown in lousy studies, that is. More than four good studies show zip.

"We gave either a placebo or 900 micrograms a day of chromium picolinate to 35 overweight men and women between the ages of 54 and 71," says Wayne Campbell of Pennsylvania State University. 'To my knowledge, no other study has used that high a dose or such exhaustive measurements.

"There was no hint of a change in fat mass, muscle mass, the size of muscle fibers, insulin, glucose, cholesterol, or anything else."

Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission got Nutrition 21, which makes chromium picolinate, to stop claiming that it causes long-term weight-loss, lowers blood cholesterol, or treats or prevents diabetes.

But other companies, like KAL, can continue to make the same unsubstantiated claims ... until the FTC acts.

Is that smart government or what?

Stressed Out

Twinlab makes StressMates. Lederle makes Stresstabs. By slapping the word "stress" on B-complex-&-vitamin-C supplements, these and other companies are cashing in on a stressed-out society.

There is no good evidence that they'll either replenish nutrients lost during emotional stress or actually reduce stress.

In the 1950s, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report suggesting that people might need more C and B-vitamins during severe physical stress. That meant multiple injuries, severe bums, or major surgery, not going-through-a-divorce or working-too-hard stress.

In 1986, New York State stopped ads for Stresstabs that showed a man working late at the office. "There is no scientifically recognized need for stress vitamins to relieve everyday stress," said then-Attorney General Robert Abrams.

Too bad that's not on the label.

[ Press Release on Dietary Supplements ]