I make these comments based on the article in The JAMA Forum “Given Their Potential for Harm, It’s Time to Focus on the Safety of Supplements.” The question is, as an industry, how do we combat the detrimental comments regularly made from the side of pharma and the biased media?
The article declares that in the United States consumers spend about $30 billion per year on supplements including vitamins, minerals, and herbal products, with uncertain benefits and possible harm for children, as well as adults. If we truly examine the evidence, they may be right in some aspects and with some vitamin brands.
As the CEO and vitamin formulator for Life Choice, 32 years, I have seen the steady decline of raw material quality beginning from the mid 80’s, mainly as a result of using synthetic rather than plant based and feed grade rather than pharmaceutical grade raw materials. In addition, the industry has some new players who have been attacked by the money. Large pharmaceutical drug manufactures such as Bayer, Proctor and Gamble, Pfizer, and Clorox Bleach have entered the industry and with them they have introduced manufacturing policies for shareholders profits rather than nutraceutical standards. In my opinion, it is time to examine the evidence and to draw a line in the sand, to separate the products with little or no quality standards – as far as raw material sourcing is concerned – from those sourced from USP pharmaceutical grade raw material and formulated for a therapeutic response. It is high time to raise the standards across the board, a distinction of manufactures producing professionally formulated therapeutic supplements. The public have the right to know what they are buying.
Here is what we are dealing with: in the United States it is buyer beware as the supplement industry is largely unregulated with no licensing standards at all. In Canada we have regulations and products are assigned natural product numbers (NPN), which is much better than in the United States, yet it offers no guarantee that the raw materials used are superior in any way – remember the Dollar Store sells vitamins and with an NPN. Here is where the problems lay: public opinion sees the health food industry as a single group, and there is no distinction being made between vitamin suppliers. A vitamin that is completely synthetic is placed in the same category as the plant based one (again in Canada they both have NPNs) so how does the consumer know the difference?
The problem is that what’s on the label probably doesn’t match what’s in that pill or gummy bear, especially when examining the raw materials used. Most consumers don’t have enough information when reading the labels and they don’t know how to interpret the source of the ingredients. This can have real repercussions, and it is no surprise that health advocates want supplements regulated like prescription drugs. But government regulations is not the answer, since a regulated product sourced from questionable raw material ingredients is still unhealthy even though it is regulated. It will only further hide the evidence and give a false sense of security. What needs changing is the standard of raw materials used in their absorbable state and the process of manufacturing and testing to GMP standards. This firmly rests in the hands of the manufactures, and they need to be held accountable.
A National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey examined supplement use among children, specifically from childhood to 19 years of age. About a third of children and adolescents take dietary supplements and multivitamins were the most common. Another research showed the same result: researchers at U.C. Davis Children’s Hospital have estimated that one-third of U.S. children take some sort of daily vitamin. To translate this to sales numbers, according to research firm Euro monitor, pediatric supplement sales are estimated at $573 million.
Unfortunately, quality regulations for children and adolescent supplements do not have a better standard than those applied for the adult market and there are both positive and negative examples.
Sarah Erush, clinical manager of the pharmacy department at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is one of the positive examples who recognized the difference in product quality. That’s why the first thing Erush looks for in a product is USP pharmaceutical grade, which is considered the gold standard. Though not every manufacturer seems to care about the USP grade, for example Bayer (Flintstones vitamins) or Pfizer (Centrum Kids and Centrum Silver) feel that they have enough brand recognition (lots of money spent) and strong internal protocols to forgo an external audit. Both manufacturers also say their products are tested during production, prior to release and even while on store shelves.
Now let’s see what we have learned. The biggest suppliers of vitamins, minerals and herbal products are owned by pharmaceutical drug manufacturers, and as both Bayer and Pfizer admit, they test their products several times. But have you examined what Flintstones vitamins and Centrum Kids use to make their children’s vitamins? If you look at the ingredients you will see that they are derived from synthetic material and the non-medicinal ingredients are considered toxic so if you love your kids you certainly don’t want them taking these harmful products.
Sarah Erush goes on to explain these fillers, such as corn syrup, sorbitol, hydrogenated coconut oil, soy, shellac, artificial flavors and artificial colors. Though all deemed safe by the FDA, not everyone agrees that they are harmless. See, this is where government regulations end up: government stamp of approval and yet not fit for human consumption.
As we know, numerous studies have linked artificial colorants with aggravating symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. In the European Union, foods with artificial food dyes must carry a warning label stating that they “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” In the U.K., artificial colors have been banned. In 2011, the FDA’s food advisory committee debated similar action, but concluded that the current data did not support a causal link between certified color additives and ADHD.
Just think of it: 33% of U.S. children and 68% of adults are taking some sort of daily vitamin. If this is the standard, it is no wonder why 11% of the children in the U.S. have ADHD – 3 boys to 1 girl and 4.4% of the adults.
In conclusion and as a recap we need to ask: how does the natural health industry defend against pharma’s attacks? The answer is simple. We must go back to the roots of the natural health industry’s origin. The reason for today are the same reasons why the natural health industry was formed, it was for the demarcation and separation from chemically laden foods. Today for food we have the organic distinction with a higher standard of quality and it comes with premium price and also peace of mind.
To avoid GMOs, consumers can chose organic. The same standards must be set for supplements which would mean the avoidance of synthetic material. Plant based, and USP pharmaceutical grade raw material, vitamins and minerals in their active state for cellular absorption, i.e. methylated folate instead of folic acid and so on. They would be in a distinct classification, with a higher standardization than those not classified and be formed by nutraceutical manufactures that chose to formulate to professional pharmaceutical standards and be regulated by an independent 3rd party. Maybe it is not so simple, but regardless it needs to be done if we want to stand tall as an industry representing health.
First in a series, to help educate consumers on product quality concerning vitamins, minerals, and herbal products.