Fairy dusting is a massive problem in the supplement industry….and, no, I’m not talking about sparkles falling from a magic wand, although I wish I were.
What is fairy dusting, you ask? It involves using ingredients in a product to make the label look good but using amounts of these ingredients that are so low, they won’t do anything. It is an all too common practice in the supplement industry. Companies use a variety of ways to hide how they are doing this, but all of it is being done to increase their profits, not for your benefit. As someone who has worked behind the scenes in the supplement industry for many years, including in product formulation, I have seen companies do this time and time again because they care more about money than your health.
Fairy dusting is great for profits but not so great for you.
Let’s do a deep dive into what this means and what to look out for! First up is changing the usual measurement for a nutrient. Ingredients in supplements are traditionally measured in grams, milligrams, micrograms, IU, etc. One gram equals one thousand milligrams, one milligram equals one thousand micrograms, and so on down the line. Companies will say that an ingredient traditionally measured in milligrams contains 1000 micrograms to make it appear like a normal or high dosage, but that would actually only be one milligram.
Lutein, an ingredient used for eye health, is an ingredient that this practice is commonly done for. Lutein is used in milligram dosages, which can vary anywhere from 5 mg to 40 mg. Check out this label:
You can see on the bottom of the right column FloraGLO Lutein 500 mcg. That is equal to one-half of one milligram. It’s not enough to actually do anything, but it looks like a lot. It allows them to advertise on the label that the product is good for eye support when that amount of lutein is not going to do anything. It serves no purpose in that product except to help the marketing department.
Lycopene is an ingredient that is often used for prostate health. Lycopene is used in milligram dosages, typically ranging from five to fifteen. Check out this label:
At the bottom of the right column, you can see lycopene 370 mcg. This is .37 mg, not even close to enough to have any effect, but it allows them to market the product for healthy prostate function, even though this amount of lycopene will certainly not help prostate function.
The second type of fairy dusting is using proprietary blends to throw in a lot of ingredients, but none will actually be at a dosage that actually does anything. If you have a blend of 30 ingredients and the total of that blend is something like 60 mg, you will only be getting an average of 2 mg per ingredient, but it will make the label look as though it has lots of good stuff in it, even if they are in amounts that will have no effect.
Blends of fruits and vegetables are some of the most common ingredients this type of fairy dusting affects. Check out this label:
This product has a blend with twenty-two ingredients for a total of two milligrams. That means there is an average of .09 mg per ingredient. So while it looks nice on the label, you would be getting nothing more than a whisper of each ingredient. Imagine kissing a strawberry. The amount left on your lips would be about the same amount. No benefits, but good marketing. As an additional thought, this product says b-12 from Saccharomyces cerevisiae. However, Saccharomyces cerevisiae does not actually contain B-12. This is an example of a fake whole-food supplement. You can read more about this sort of thing in our blog, Whole Food Supplements 101.
This liquid multivitamin has some excellent examples of this type of fairy dusting.
On the right-hand column, scroll down to the fruit and vegetable blend. This blend contains twenty-two ingredients for a total of 150 mg. This gives you an average of 6.81 mg per ingredient. Definitely not enough of any fruit or veggie to have any benefit.
The next blend is the mushroom mycelia blend. It contains a blend of ten ingredients, giving you an average of five milligrams. Not only is that not enough to do anything, but it’s also the mycelium (roots) of the mushroom ground up with the grain with it was grown on, not even the fruiting bodies that we think of when we think of mushrooms. To learn more about how mushroom supplements should be made and all the crazy things that go on with them, check out our Complete Guide to Mushroom Supplements.
It’s that block of stuff underneath those mushrooms that you are getting with this type of blend, not the actual mushrooms.
Next up is the sprout blend. It contains a blend of twelve ingredients for a total of fifty milligrams. This gives you an average of about 4.16 mg per ingredient. Not enough to actually do anything, but it sure looks great on the label.
Check out this label; it is probably the best example of this type of fairy dusting:
This product has a 42 fruits and vegetable blend in 5 mg. That means there are, on average, .11 micrograms per ingredient. That is less than 1/100th of a strawberry. Imagine cutting a strawberry into 100 pieces and then imagine even less than one of those pieces. It looks great having all those foods in there, but they are doing absolutely nothing except helping the marketing department.
The third type of fairy dusting is listing the percent of a compound that is that compound, while the full amount looks much higher. I know that sounds confusing, but you will see it in a second. Check out this label:
If you look at the bottom right, it says Lutein 5% - 10 mcg. This means you would only get 5% of that ten micrograms. Ten micrograms are already far too little lutein, which is used in milligram dosages, to do anything, so getting five percent of that tiny amount is even more of an insult, but the marketing people are happy.
In this one, you can see the same trick but with three ingredients:
On the bottom, you can see that lycopene and lutein both say 5%. So you will be getting 5% of those already tiny amounts. Both of those should be given in milligrams, not micrograms. The citrus bioflavonoids say 40%, so an ingredient that is normally used in hundreds of milligrams is only going to give you 12.5 milligrams.
The fourth type of fairy dusting is using dosages too low to do anything without any attempt at hiding it. Why put enough of an ingredient in when just one or two milligrams will make the label look great and be just enough for marketing purposes?
Check out this liquid vitamin:
The last ingredient at the bottom is Aloe vera gel 200:1 extract. It does not matter how much you concentrate aloe vera, one milligram is not going to do anything, but it lets you have aloe on the label. Check out this page to learn all about how aloe should be made and how much you need.
This multivitamin gives us three great examples of this type of fairy dusting:
Towards the bottom, you can see bioflavonoids at 1.25 mg, quercetin at 2.5 mg, and aloe at 1 mg. While all of those ingredients have wonderful uses, at those dosages, they will have no benefit to anyone but the marketing department.
This one has a great example:
Amino acids are needed in large amounts, generally hundreds or thousands of milligrams. This one has eight milligrams of methionine, five milligrams of glutamine, and fifteen milligrams of lysine. There are not going to be any benefits from those dosages, but they sure make the label look pretty.
This label also has another red flag. On the right column, it has grape seed and says 100 mg, but right underneath that, it says from 5 mg of a 20:1 extract. So it does not actually have 100 mg of grape seed extract; it has 5 mg. What it should say is:
Grape Seed Extract (20:1) 5 mg
This is incredibly deceiving and another type of fairy dusting.
There are some easy ways to avoid getting fleeced by fairy dusting. The first and simplest is to buy products with fewer ingredients. For example, don’t buy a green food product that looks like this:
In addition to having way too many ingredients at levels that will not do anything, companies will often add cheap filler ingredients to pad the label. Ingredients in green food powders like lecithin and inulin are cheap fillers that bulk up the product and make it much cheaper to make without really providing any benefits.
It is much better to get a properly prepared green food, with just a few ingredients, in amounts that actually provide benefit, without all the fillers, sweeteners, and useless junk, such as this:
Just two simple ingredients: Regeneratively grown Kale and Chard.
When products have so many ingredients, especially with foods, you will never get enough of them to have a beneficial effect.
When buying multivitamins, avoid those that say for men and women. These products will just put a tiny spec of some ingredient for men or women, but not enough to actually do anything. These products are just marketing. Just buy a good, real, whole-food multivitamin.
Prenatal vitamins are one of the few multivitamins worth buying a specific type.
Avoid herbal formulas with huge amounts of ingredients, as there is simply not going to be enough of any one ingredient to have a beneficial effect. Here is one example of this type that's stuffed more than a Thanksgiving turkey; instead of delicious stuffing inside, it's just disappointment.
Too many ingredients are the same as too many cooks in the kitchen.
Instead, use something like this:
Just a few properly prepared simple ingredients.
There are a few exceptions to this rule when it comes to herbs, some are used in small amounts to potentiate a formula or make some other herbs work better, but for the most part, the fewer ingredients are better.
If you are wondering whether an herb in a formula is just fairy dusting or if it is performing an important role, only needed in small amounts, check with a good herbalist. You want products that benefit you, not the marketing department. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I am not overly fond of the marketing departments at most supplement companies. I may have had more than a few, let’s just say, passionate conversations with a lot of them.
Hopefully, this article gave you some great insight into some of the underhanded things that supplement companies do and how you can avoid them!