Why it’s in the supplement industry’s best interest to be as transparent and truthful as possible with our ingredients, labels, and marketing claims.
Over the last few decades, research on dietary supplement ingredients has advanced enough to remove supplements from the “pseudoscience” category and plant them firmly in the modern wellness narrative. The benefits of dietary supplements—for example, turmeric—have been professionally, cross-culturally studied and proven. Why, then, is there a growing distrust of the supplements industry?
As the sector has grown—from $5 billion to $50 billion in just the past few decades, according to a recent Washington Post article—its size has outpaced the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) budget and ability to monitor it. Some supplement manufacturers have begun cutting corners for profit, engaging in harmful practices that range from angel dusting to economic adulteration.
The danger is that a few bad actors have the power to shift the perception of an entire industry. And that’s why the onus is on us, the leaders in the space, to adhere to strict standards and practices that keep consumers safe and prioritize their well-being.
Angel Dusting and Its Impacts
Angel dusting is the practice of including a miniscule amount of an active ingredient in a product—an amount too small to provide therapeutic benefit—and marketing that product in a misleading way. In the supplement industry, this would look like a company saying “our product contains essential vitamins and minerals” when the actual quantity of included vitamins and minerals is insufficient to produce a measurable benefit. Unlike much stricter standards for products that make specific medical claims, like over-the-counter medications or pharmaceutical-grade supplements, FDA requires supplement companies to hold themselves to good manufacturing and honest marketing practices.
It is, of course, the consumer who suffers from the harmful practice of angel dusting. When I left The Cleveland Clinic to create supplements brand KaraMD and pursue functional medicine, I did it because I knew there was true value in supplements and that natural remedies help patients in real ways—whether that’s digestive support, heart health, or overall well-being. But supplement manufacturers who behave irresponsibly and deceive customers sow distrust in the industry as a whole. It’s our responsibility as manufacturers to rise to a higher standard and honor the health—and trust—of the consumers who turn to our products.
The Problem of Economic Adulteration
Another corner-cutting trick employed by some supplement manufacturers is economic adulteration: swapping cheaper ingredients for premium ones while touting premium ingredients on the label.
These undeclared substitutions can take place at several points along the supply chain, including during the manufacturing of the raw ingredients. It requires diligence and care to source honest, quality ingredients for supplements; it is our duty to approach our supply chains with open, discerning eyes. As the manufacturers of supplements, we have a duty to our end users, and it starts with the responsible sourcing of ingredients.
What Can We Do?
Perhaps the most obvious way to counter these deceptive practices would be to place stricter standards on food-grade supplements and supplement makers. For example, if a product is advertised as containing “essential vitamins and minerals,” the manufacturer should be required to disclose all ingredients and their dosages.
But implementing these standards may not be within our control. What we, as manufacturers, can do is test. Lab tests analyze supplements for things like contaminants—for example, microbials and/or heavy metals—and can even go so far as to evaluate a product for purity and the content of its ingredients, and will issue a Certificate of Analysis (COA).
It’s in our best interest—and the best interest of our customers—to be as transparent as possible with our ingredients, labels, and marketing claims. We owe this to the people who rely on our products to be well. Transparency can not only elevate supplement manufacturers as credible sources but also build back the trust some consumers have lost in the dietary supplements industry as a whole by helping them understand exactly what they’re spending their money on and how it will benefit them in tangible ways.
For readers seeking answers about how to shop smartly for supplements, the best thing to do is pay attention to product labels. Always seek a supplement that displays its labels clearly for evaluation and includes the actual dosage and Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) of active ingredients of active ingredients. When you visit a manufacturer’s website, it should be informative and clearly display the product’s Supplement Facts. Avoid manufacturers that make vague or hard-to-understand marketing claims about specific ingredients and their benefits.
Dr. M Kara is the creator of KaraMD, a line of supplements focused on digestive support, heart health, and reducing inflammation as the gateway to overall health. Dr. Kara has 30+ years of experience with patients. After spending the early part of his career treating patients at The Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Kara spent the last several years focusing his work on functional medicine and natural remedies to help people live healthier lives.