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Vitamins often do not contain the nutrients they claim

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture

An independent laboratory has conducted a study of the 50 most popular multivitamins and revealed that one in three does not contain the amount of nutrients they claim. ConsumerLab, based in Westchester, N.Y., is a company that independently evaluates hundreds of health and nutrition products and periodically publishes reviews. Independent consumer laboratories are increasingly the public’s new ally in product testing that is not screened by the FDA. Multivitamins, minerals and other health supplements are not regularly inspected by the feds, a surprising fact given their immense popularity and widespread use. The news is especially troubling for those who are medically vulnerable or fragile, such as the chronically ill, elderly, and pregnant and nursing mothers. There is simply no way of knowing what’s inside these products outside of independent lab testing.

Supplements have been a topic of controversy for a long time, especially at times when their improper production or contamination causes a major health incident. In 1989, for example, there was a large tryptophan-related outbreak of eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS), which caused 1,500 cases of permanent disability and at least thirty-seven deaths. There is still some controversy about whether the outbreak was caused by a contaminated batch of tryptophan (by genetically modified bacteria used in the manufacture of tryptophan), or whether it was the result of the body’s reaction to metabolic by-products of excessive tryptophan intake. Either cause underscores the risks involved in self-administering bioactive substances which are not overseen by a knowledgeable and authoritative body.

The results of the current screening did not expose anything quite so sinister. Nevertheless, it is advisable for the consumer to be prudent and not rely significantly on packaged vitamins, minerals and supplements for health. In some instances, in fact, the vitamins might better be left on the store shelf. For example, a popular brand of children’s vitamins, Hero Nutritionals Yummi Bears, were found to contain excessive amounts of Vitamin A. Excessive Vitamin A can be toxic to the liver, and higher levels of the nutrient in kids have been linked to liver abnormalities, bone weakening, and problems with the nervous system. Other products were found to have less than the specified amount of nutrient claimed, making them unreliable sources of the desired therapeutic compounds.

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Among the supplements that had too little of a particular nutrient were Trader Joe’s Vitamin Crusade (just 59 percent of the vitamin A advertised on the label), Melaleuca Vitality Multivitamin & Mineral (just 42 percent of the touted vitamin A) and All One Active Seniors (less than 2 percent of the beta-carotene, 73 percent of the retinol and 49 percent of the vitamin A listed on the label).

Another problem encountered with the supplements was the indissolubility of the pills. Some may have contained what they claimed, but unfortunately did not dissolve in time to be absorbed in the gut. Such pills would then pass through the body partially intact, thereby not conferring the benefits of the supplemental nutrition. One product, Alpha Betic, took twice as long as it should have to break apart in solution, found ConsumerLab. The supplement also contained less vitamin A than it should have.

ConsumerLab found almost no connection between price and quality. Many of the cheaper pills (prices ranging between $0.03 and $0.14 per day) passed all the tests, while some of the most expensive ones (priced as high as $1 per day) failed.

Why is the FDA not involved in the routine screening of supplements? Defenders of the agency say that the supplement industry has fought tooth and nail against government inspections. Many interest groups not directly linked to health supplements are at least ideologically aligned with as little government scrutiny of our lives as possible. Nevertheless, the argument is weak given that when it counts, there is very little resistance to federal inspection protocols. The FDA is intricately involved with the regular monitoring of manufactured drugs because these are patented by powerful pharmaceutical companies. There are vast fortunes at stake. A whole economy could be weakened by something going wrong with a very popular medication, not to mention consumer confidence in any future drugs marketed by the offending company.

And supplements? Supplements and vitamins are essentially nature-made, even if the extraction and compounding process may be less than natural. These substances cannot be patented and cannot be monopolized by a corporation or industry sector. In themselves, they cannot be a source of the kind of profit that pharmaceutical drugs command. Consumers take their own private risk when taking supplments.