When a company harnesses the credibility of a high-quality branded ingredient to enhance the reputation of its finished product—only to then quietly switch that key ingredient for a lower-quality ingredient somewhere along the line—I call it “nutritional counterfeiting.”
This issue became troubling to me when I recently visited some local vitamin stores looking for calcium supplements. At the time, I was also a researcher for a new study on an algae-based calcium ingredient. As a result of my research, I was impressed by this algae calcium source. Naturally, I wanted to see which finished products on the market contained the ingredient.
The retail staff at two of the four stores I visited instantly recognized the calcium ingredient that was the subject of my study. They suggested I would find the ingredient in one of the most popular calcium products in their stores. However, when I looked for the ingredient’s brand name on the product’s label, it was nowhere to be found. The store staff was visibly befuddled and unable to answer why that particular calcium ingredient had been switched out, or how the new replacement calcium ingredient compared. In fact, the majority of the stores’ management had not realized there had been an ingredient change until I inquired about it. The manufacturer had simply shipped the new formula to the retailers without notifying the stores of the key ingredient change, the calcium substitution.
Although I’m in no way affiliated with or paid by the manufacturers of the calcium I studied, I made it my business to learn about the discrepency. I learned that the particular algae ingredient I had been studying, AlgaeCal, is the only certified-organic calcium source in the world. It is handpicked from the South American coastal waters from which it is derived. But what impressed me most about this unique calcium ingredient is that it had been the subject of more than a dozen research studies looking at bone density, bioavailability, tolerability, safety, and other parameters important to me as a researcher—and a consumer.
With the scientific support, ecological accreditation, and organic certification backing the algae ingredient, it was evident why the supplement marketer would choose to use it in its nutritional supplement to begin with. Based on my inquiries, it is also clear that the new version of the product contains a different marine algae species that is nothing like the one I studied. This new calcium source is primarily dead when algae is vacuumed from the ocean floor in an industrial-scale dredging operation. A large percentage of the vacuumed material is then discarded from the ship, effectively silting the surrounding area and suffocating local species.
Even more to my surprise and concern, this replacement seaweed calcium had no bone-density research. There was one bioavailability study behind it, but that study only measured an exaggerated parathyroid hormone response to calcium—a study design that is flawed and not accepted by the research community.
For a supplement like calcium that I expect to take for the next several decades, I want the products I buy to be supported by good, well-designed research studies showing that they are safe and efficacious. By making a few phone calls, I was able to learn that the replacement calcium ingredient costs about a fifth of what the one I studied costs, so I believe the motive for switching is obvious.
If a company invests in purity, ecological harvesting practices, certifications, and multiple studies for its ingredient, a manufacturer may use those selling points to get its finished product noticed at the start. However, should the marketer make an ingredient switch to a lesser-quality ingredient, ideally they should substantially change their packaging—and possibly reduce their product price. They should also inform retailers of the switch, as I believe ingredient switching also dupes the stores that sell these supplements.
The product I took issue with was on store shelves for approximately $60 per bottle—the most expensive calcium product I’ve seen. If I’m going to pay that much for a bottle of calcium, it had better contain the real ingredient.
I hope that consumers and retailers do the right thing. Look for the logo of branded and well-researched ingredients. Support those companies that conduct high-quality research.