Tricks of the trade: Are supplement companies playing you for a fool?

Hoping to boost your immunity? Keep your brain sharp? Improve your mood? Look no further than the supplement aisle at your local drugstore. At least that’s what supplement makers want you to believe. Here’s how the industry uses sleight of hand to sell the vitamins, minerals, and herbals that most of us don’t need.

Linguistic loopholes

renew life ad


“Claims, especially structure/function claims, may help sell product,” says “However, they may also invite regulatory action if improperly phrased or inadequately supported.”

But supplement makers needn’t fear. They’ve got plenty of tools at their disposal.

Companies can make claims about how a supplement (or food) affects the normal structure or function of the body with little oversight by the Food and Drug Administration, as long as the claims don’t name a disease or promise to treat a condition.

So odds are you won’t see a supplement that can “lower cholesterol” but you’ll see plenty that “help maintain healthy cholesterol levels.”

And you’ll see shelves full of pills that claim to “enhance vitality,” “support healthy brain function,” “help calm your mind,” and “promote digestive health.”

A case in point: “Renew Life probiotics can help improve digestion and boost energy to keep your guts strong so you can be the best possible human you can be.”

See how Renew stayed vague...but inspiring? Little worry about “regulatory action” from the FDA with that strategy.

Or marketers can skip the specifics altogether. “Every Emergen-C gives you a potent blend of nutrients so you can emerge your best,” says the TV ad.

Nicely done. Keep it simple. Keep it general.


Glance at the ad from Zebra CBD (which sells CBD oils, tablets, and more), and you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a run-of-the-mill magazine article. Only the word “Advertisement,” printed in tiny type at the top of the page, says otherwise.


In this “advertorial,” which has appeared in magazines like Clean Eating and Yoga Journal, author Jennifer Love explains that her 40s brought “some new gifts from dear ol’ Mother Nature—frequent knee pain, stress, low energy and sleeplessness.” That is, until her “marathon-running niece” recommended CBD.

In her search for “cold hard facts,” Love “came across Emily Gray M.D.,” who wrote that Zebra CBD “produces top-quality products with easy to use instructions.”

Gray is a CBD researcher at the University of California, San Diego. She also just happens to be the medical advisor for Zebra CBD...something the advertorial never mentions. (We asked Zebra CBD and Gray if she is paid. Neither responded.) Sneaky.

“Clinically proven”

“Clinically proven,” says the ad for Longevity by Nature’s Telos95 Telomere Health Support.

Take the supplement (made of grapevine and olive leaf extracts) to “reverse cellular aging” by lengthening telomeres—the caps on our chromosomes—“by an astounding 80 percent.”

Here are five of the tricks that the company used to “prove” that Telos95 works:

1. Outsource the research.

To conduct its study, Longevity by Nature hired Princeton Consumer Research.

“Whatever your product does, PCR is here to provide your brand with the appropriate efficacy testing to make your claims a fact by proving their legitimacy,” says Princeton’s website.

Why design a good study to see if your product actually works, when you can concoct one that will simply “make your claims a fact”?

2. Ditch the placebo group.

Any good supplement trial needs a placebo group. If the results don’t differ between placebo takers and supplement takers, you can’t claim that the supplement works.

Uh-oh. So PCR randomly assigned 50 adults to one of two groups that took 65 milligrams of Telos95 either once or twice a day.1 No placebo, no problem! But without a placebo group, the results are worthless.

clinically proven claim

3. Measure something that may not matter.

The authors sent volunteers’ blood samples to TeloYears, a company that will measure almost anyone’s telomeres for $89 (and that’s happy to sell you a month’s supply of its own supplements for $25 to $59).

The company calculates “TeloYear” age by comparing the length of your telomeres to those of people of the same age and sex.

But even if the tests are accurate, they might not tell you much.

In one study, telomere length was only slightly better than flipping a coin at predicting who would die over five years.2

4. Skip the statistics.

After six months, the average “TeloYear” age dropped by 7½ years in the once-daily Telos95 takers and by 8½ years in the twice-daily takers, said the authors. How did they test to see if the difference was statistically significant? The study didn’t bother to say.

5. Publish results in a low-tier journal.

The Telos95 study was published in HealthMED, the “Journal of Society for development in new net environment in B&H.” (That’s Bosnia & Herzegovina.)

The cost: probably around $800, judging by the journal’s fees. Small price to pay to be able to say “Clinically Proven.”

1HealthMED 13: 38, 2019.
2PLoS One 11: 0152486, 2016.

If at first you don’t succeed...

Study didn’t pan out as you had hoped? Get creative!

Shakeology knows what we’re talking about. “Shakeology can help curb cravings and help you lose weight,” says Beachbody, Shakeology’s parent company.

In a Beachbody-funded study co-authored by company employees, 41 adults drank a Shakeology smoothie, which was high in protein and added fiber, or a calorie-matched placebo smoothie with less fiber and almost no protein. A half hour later, they were told to eat as much pizza as they wanted.1

Unfortunately (for the Shakeology marketing team), the volunteers ate no less pizza after they drank Shakeology than after they drank the placebo.

So the researchers sliced and diced the data. When they grouped the volunteers into “less than 25 years” or “25 years and older” categories (the average age of the entire group was 30), they found that the older group ate roughly 180 fewer calories’ worth of pizza after drinking Shakeology than after downing the placebo.

So do Shakeology smoothies curb cravings and lead to weight loss if you’re 25 or older? The study wasn’t designed to look at that, so you’d need a new study to find out. But why bother? Shakeology got something good enough to advertise.

1Curr. Dev. Nutr. 2: nzy022, 2018

“Don’t take our word for it!”

celebrity testimonial

“Results speak for themselves,” declares the website for Equelle, a supplement that claims to reduce hot flashes.

“Hear it from the women who told us.” Testimonials build trust in potential customers...who may not realize that the plugs are often paid for or come with perks.

“This user participated in a free product sampling program,” says the small, easy-to-miss type on Equelle’s video reviews.

Better yet, pay a celebrity like Kate Walsh to rave about your supplement on her personal social media account. Worth every penny!

Beware the fine print

fine print

“Leanfire supplements from Force Factor contain ingredients clinically shown to help increase energy, burn fat, and double your weight loss,” says the commercial.

Double your weight loss? Sounds great!

Good luck catching the fine print (enlarged above) in the next frame, which appears for only a couple of seconds: “Results not typical. Healthy diet and exercise recommended for optimal results.” Sounds about right.

A word from our sponsors


“Not on this ground-breaking supplement yet? Here’s why you’re about to be,” ran the 2018 headline on about Ritual, a pricey multivitamin made for women.

Savvy readers may have noticed the word “sponsored” below the headline. Just like companies pay for advertorials, they “sponsor” articles in magazines and newspapers and on websites.

But if you missed it, and if you didn’t scroll to the end of the article (which was written “by Well+Good editors”) and see the “in partnership with Ritual” disclosure, you might have thought that it was an objective look at the supplement. Far from it.

Quality not assured

best naturals glucosamine chondroitin MSM
Best Naturals.

“3rd Party Lab Tested,” says Best Naturals’ Glucosamine + Chondroitin + MSM. And see that “GMP” seal on the label? It stands for “Good Manufacturing Practice.”

Ignore both. All supplement companies are supposed to follow the FDA’s good manufacturing practices. In reality, most facilities evade inspection in any given year, and many inspected facilities are cited for violations.

And the FDA doesn’t endorse or verify seals, logos, or quality claims.

Even so, there are quality seals you can trust. If a label carries a USP (U.S. Pharmacopeia) or NSF (NSF International) seal, you can rest assured that the supplement contains what the label says, that it’s free of tested contaminants, and that it disintegrates fast enough to get into your bloodstream. (Whether it works is another matter.)

Just keep in mind that many companies don’t opt to pay NSF’s or USP’s fees. So good luck with that.