Every day we get hundreds of emails, chats, and questions. What stands out is how often we get asked about products that are not real or anything like what they claim to be.
Now you might be thinking, how is this possible? Well, this is what happens in an industry that can pretty much do whatever it wants with impunity.
Let’s start with a very popular product, liquid “chlorophyll.” Chlorophyll is a pigment found in green plants and algae that you probably learned about in science class.
Sodium copper chlorophyllin does not occur in plants, including mulberry leaves.
Guess what? None of those liquid “chlorophyll” products contains chlorophyll as it appears in plants. They contain a semi-synthetic compound called sodium copper chlorophyllin, which has a different molecular structure than chlorophyll. This is how it is made:
Chlorophyllin is extracted from natural sources such as alfalfa, spinach, and nettles or chemically synthesized from chlorophyll by replacing the magnesium ion with copper and adding sodium. The extraction process involves grinding the plant material, treating it with a solvent such as ethanol or acetone, and then precipitating the chlorophyllin using acid.
Labeling these products as chlorophyll and making people think it is pressed from a plant and bottled is incredibly deceiving and should be illegal. You should not be able to label a product as something that it is not.
If you want to take a chlorophyll supplement, it would be much better to use good quality algae supplements like spirulina, chlorella, and blue-green algae, which contain chlorophyll, not a semi-synthetic knockoff.
Next up are mushroom supplements. Did you know many mushroom supplements don’t contain any mushroom-fruiting bodies, and yet they put pictures of them on the label?
Most people would rightfully assume that a mushroom supplement with pictures of the mushroom-fruiting body on the package would contain what is shown in the image. Unfortunately, many, including the largest mushroom supplement maker, do not put this in.
They grind and heat the grain block that mycelium (think of this as the roots) is growing and put it into a pill or sell it as powder. These products end up being nearly entirely made of partially digested grain starch. That is why reishi supplements made this way taste sweet, whereas if you taste a reishi mushroom, it is very bitter.
Despite the picture on the box, that is not a mushroom supplement as it does not contain any reishi mushroom fruiting body. Just ground up mycelium spawn block. There is none of what is pictured on the box. If you open one of these capsules, it tastes sweet instead of the bitter taste you get if you eat reishi mushrooms.
“In 1976, the FDA issued a statement in its Compliance Policy Guide, Section 585.525: Mushroom Mycelium – Fitness for Food; Labeling. It states: “Any food in which mushroom mycelium [sic] is used should be labeled to state that fact. Labeling should not suggest or imply that the food contains mushrooms.” It could not be clearer.”
Unfortunately, the FDA has not enforced this policy. Until this policy is enforced, companies will continue to make these products with deceptive labeling because they are so cheap to make and the profit margins are so high. Hopefully, one day the FDA will step up and enforce the rules on these companies, but we are not holding our breath. Mycelium products are not real mushroom supplements, no matter how much they spend on fancy packaging and marketing.
Another common theme we get asked about is supplements that claim a nutrient is from a particular food, but that food does not contain that nutrient, so it is not possible for it to be from that food.
Saccharomyces cerevisiae, also known as nutritional or brewers yeast, is often thought of it as containing vitamin b-12 because it is listed on the nutrition facts of most nutritional yeast products. However, that is because synthetic b-12 is added to it. It does not contain any naturally occurring b-12.
This product lists its b-12 as methylcobalamin from saccharomyces cerevisiae, but that cannot possibly be when it does not contain b-12. So what is happening?
The b-12 is made by feeding synthetic b-12 to the yeast. This b-12 certainly does not fit our definition of a whole-food supplement, despite what the label claims. This type of product labeling should be illegal, but when a massive company like Nestle owns you, you can do whatever you want. If you see any products labeled as b-12 from nutritional yeast, it is not what it claims to be.
Quinoa is a very popular grain. Recently a raw material supplier in the supplement industry started to capitalize on this. They created a powder that they claim is rich in natural b-vitamins. Well, many of the b-vitamins they claim it is rich in are not naturally occurring in quinoa (b12, for example), so how could they be selling a quinoa powder with those b-vitamins in it?
Folic acid also does not occur naturally, only as various forms of folate. If the product is non-synthetic, as the label claims, where did the folic acid come from?
The raw material supplier feeds the quinoa synthetic b vitamins while it grows to increase the vitamin content artificially. While they may put that the vitamins are derived from quinoa sprouts on the label, they are actually from the synthetic vitamins introduced into the process. This product definitely does not fit our definition of a whole-food supplement.
“Fermented vitamins” are another one that comes up frequently. Fermented foods like kimchi, yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut are amazing foods with many benefits. These “fermented vitamins” are nothing like real fermented foods and do not provide the benefits that those foods do.
These products are made by introducing semi-synthetic vitamin D3 into a fermenting tank with nutritional yeast and a few other things like molasses, then killing off the yeast and adding a few things. Labeling these products as fermented leads people to believe they are fermented food, which they are certainly not. Making these vitamins differs significantly from how fermented foods like sauerkraut and yogurt are made. If you ever made sauerkraut at home, you don't spend time killing off the yeasts and adding enzymes to burst the cell walls. It also takes weeks, months, or even longer to produce most fermented foods; it is not done in an afternoon like most "fermented vitamins" are.
We are frequently asked about things that seem great, but digging a bit deeper leads to some disappointing information. Many companies claim a vitamin might be made from a particular food that does contain that specific nutrient. However, the amounts needed to produce a bottle of that product would be astronomical. So if it were really from that food, the finished product cost would be extremely high.
That product claims to contain twenty-seven milligrams of iron from curry leaves in 3 tablets, each with nine milligrams of iron. Each bottle includes ninety pills, for a total of eight hundred and ten milligrams of iron. The wholesale cost of that product is about twelve to thirteen dollars, which means it costs the company about three to four dollars a bottle to produce. This includes the raw materials, manufacturing, testing, quality control, bottles, labels, packaging, shipping, etc.
If it takes three and a half ounces of curry leaves to produce two milligrams of iron, it would take about eighty-eight and a half pounds of curry leaves to produce enough iron for that one bottle. In India, where this raw material is made, if you buy vast amounts at wholesale, you can buy it relatively cheap, less than a dollar per kilo (2.2 lbs). However, it would still cost far more than three to five dollars to buy eighty-eight pounds of them, and that does not include the cost of extracting and producing the iron from the leaves. The math does not add up. So you tell us it’s real or not? We guess that it’s not.
One of our favorites that we get asked about is products that claim to have ingredients that do not exist.
This product claims to have a probiotic bacteria called Lactobacillus thermophilus. This bacteria does not exist. I'm not sure what we can say about this other than to avoid probiotics claiming to have bacteria that do not exist.
Another fun one is companies claiming a nutrient that does not occur naturally is from a particular food in their product. Well, if that specific form of that nutrient does not appear in food, then either they are less than truthful about it, or the product is mislabeled, but either way, it’s certainly not what it claims to be.
This product claims to have folic acid from lemon peel. Well, folic acid is a synthetic form of folate that is not found in lemons or any other food. Food contains various forms of folate but never folic acid, so the product is mislabeled, or the claimed source is incorrect.
They claim to have eight hundred micrograms of folic acid per pill and one hundred and eighty tablets per bottle, but they also put what the eight hundred micrograms of folic acid is “equivalent” to in terms of folate (1333 mcg), so they must mean folic acid. For the sake of argument, let’s say the product is mislabeled, and they mean folate. Well, one pound of lemon peel contains about sixty micrograms of folate. So each pill requires a little over thirteen pounds of lemon peel. That means producing one bottle of this would take over twenty-three hundred pounds of lemon peel. Can you imagine the cost of having a bottle of vitamins that requires over one ton of lemon peel to produce? They certainly would not be selling it for fourteen dollars. Another possibility is that synthetic folic acid is mixed with some lemon peel extract to make it look good. This product has some real issues.
We could go on and on with examples of things companies do that we wish did not happen in this industry. Unfortunately, the lack of proper regulation and loopholes is making this behavior more and more common, as well as many other hazardous practices, such as counterfeit supplements.
We hope this has been an eye-opening look at some all-too-common practices in the supplement industry. If you have questions about a particular supplement, claim a product is making, or where and how it’s made, we are here to help. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will do our best to get you the information you need.