I understand that while you may be supplement savvy, you’re probably not as obsessed as my crew or I am.
Because of this, you may have missed the supplement manufacturer NOW beating the snot out of Amazon.com for selling garbage products.
It’s long been claimed that Amazon is a cesspool of poor quality and dangerous supplements. It’s waaay too easy to set up shop and sell poorly made, ineffective, adulterated, or excessively dosed products. In fact, products heavy in pharmaceutical compounds, nootropics, are readily available on Amazon, despite illegal status in the US.
NOW Foods, a supplement brand who I used to rail against for poor quality results and now firmly sit in what I describe as the “mediocre middle” as identified in our 3 Types of Dietary Supplements article, has started to use their market position and resources to call out this MAJOR problem.
I don’t blame them: here we are, doing all this hard work and doing the right thing, and these folks are putting profit over people (and taking away from our market share)!
What did they find? What are the results? Let’s dive in!
The NOW Foods Amazon Analysis
Here’s a few examples of what NOW has found:
Alpha Lipoic Acid
- They tested 13 Alpha Lipoic Acid products and found 6 of the 13 had less than 75% of the claimed amount
- Two of the products tested had less than 10% of the dose claimed on the label
- They tested 43 (whoa!) phosphatidylserine products.
- Of those tested, 2 were probably spiked!
- 36 of the 43 failed potency claims
- 17% of them had less than 10% of the labelled value
- They tested 10 CoQ10 products
- 0 of 10 met label claims
- 6 of 10 had less than 5% of label claims
- These results echo efforts by the CoQ10 Association to measure poor quality about a year ago!
- They tested 10 SAMe products
- 0 of 10 met label claims
- 2 had no detectable levels
These results should really resonate with you; these are not a small portion of the sample, it’s a majority. It’s not a slight out of specifications result set, most products are practically devoid of active ingredients.
Please consider one important fact: we’re measuring POTENCY here, which, while important, is just a singular measure of product quality. There could be an unknown number of contaminants in these bottles.
Imagine, for a second, that 6 out of 10 studied generic drugs had less than 5% of the labelled amount. Heck, do you see how pissed people get when their pepperoni Digiorno pizza doesn’t have enough pepperoni on it?
If a brand is not taking steps to ensure the potency of the active ingredient, it should be assumed they’re doing NOTHING to guarantee the purity of the product.
Amazon’s Response to Poor Quality Supplements on its Site
Obviously, this is a MAJOR problem.
Amazon is issuing a pretty broad response requiring deep levels of documentation and proof BEFORE a brand is allowed to sell on the site.
- Proof that it meets label claims
- Proof it’s GMP compliant, meaning it complies with federal laws about manufacturing
- Proof that only lawful and safe ingredients are in there
- Proof that the doses are safe
- A copy of an up to date Certificate of Analysis
Your response should simultaneously be, “Wow, that’s great!” and “Wait, they didn’t need that before?”
My philosophy has always been that retailers and those recommending supplements must take responsibility for the products they stock or promote.
Even with the best situation, I believe we all need to do our best to ensure a quality supply chain, but why this is happening and what this means, in my opinion, is complete nonsense.
What I Make of All of This
My opinion of this turn of events is a mix of happiness and visceral frustration. A nauseousness from swallowing the same bitter pill, mixed with “I told ya so!” reaffirmation.
To be clear, this all stems from our poor regulations around supplements and the resulting weak enforcement. The DSHEA Act, the law overseeing dietary supplement regulations, was a gift to the industry and a curse to us end users.
As for this specific situation, I don’t want us to mistake this for a noble pursuit of truth. Frankly, this is mostly financially motivated. NOW saw their sales slipping, especially on Amazon, and wanted to know why. We can dress it up as a service to the industry, but…
Like all of us trying to compete in this market, we KNEW amazon HAS to be selling junk brands and junk products; you can’t get super low prices without cutting corners on practically all of your processes.
But listen, they put their money where their mouth is, and that’s commendable.
I would do the same. If I had a bunch of extra money laying around and a super-duper profitable, established 50+ year business, I’d be doing this all day long!
Amazon is acting out of self-interest as well. How much more time before this unwanted attention brings regulators to Amazon’s doors?
CVS just went through this. If you remember, I was very clear in saying that these actions are not commendable: they’re minimum competency.
We have a responsibility as retailers to sell products that aren’t dangerous or devoid of ingredients. Period.
Moving forward, sure, Amazon’s going to require some data and that’s great. It’s going to be a big barrier to entry, weeding out some of the unscrupulous characters.
But this stuff can be faked too.
In reality, it’s supplement quality theater; it’s a mechanism to say, “look, we’re doing something—it’s the bad characters, not us!”
What the Wake-Up and Shake-Up Means For You
This will be good for like 90% of the people who would be buying supplements on Amazon.com.
More protections in place. More major retailers are taking minimum responsibility.
Remember: it doesn’t mean that the products sold are “good” or trustworthy or right for you. It just means they’re not bullshit or dangerous.
Ensuring GMP requirements is only speaking to ONE component of our model for comprehensive supplement quality, the Supplement Quality Standard.
Real supplement quality is the product manufacturing (which this is addressing), but also therapeutics (will this supplement even work, is it safe for you), and ethics (how does the business act in the world).
Amazon will still be selling junk, it just will be verified junk. It means you are far less likely to get a product that is completely useless. But not unlikely.
What Not to Do Because of the Wake-Up
What do they say about assuming?
The absolute worst thing we can do as consumers is to assume that we can now put our guard down when it comes to purchasing supplements.
Much like CVS’s program, this is minimum competency, not a new standard for supplement quality that finally takes the guesswork out of buying vitamins.
We must hold brands, retailers, and gurus accountable to minimum regulatory compliance. Bare minimum doesn’t work for me, and it shouldn’t for you either.
We should seek to use the right supplements for us, in doses and forms that will work, based on REAL science.
You can’t get that experience from an online store or a mass marketer. You can self-direct your supplement strategy, but it may be best to get some assistance.
Always remember: supplement quality is MORE than minimum legal compliance…
…and your mailbox isn’t a trusted advisor on optimizing your health.
Just trying to keep it real…
Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth