The Supplement Industry: A Business in the Shadows


Many individuals tout the potency of their supplements and vitamins, stating that these mechanisms are what enable them to build muscle, grow stronger or simply get through the day. However, longitudinal studies do not indicate an increase in performance or growth in muscle tissue density but instead link the success of the supplement to the placebo effect.

In the early 1990s, the Congress sat down to discuss increasing the powers of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on food and supplement labeling. They initially decided to integrate the Nutrition Advertising Coordination Act of 1991 to create more stringent protocols for approving supplements. This action did not come without significant lobbying, where companies such as Nature Plus deemed the FDA biased and these changes unnecessary. As a result, in 1994, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah introduced to the public the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which allowed supplement companies to bypass the FDA approval process and place their products on the market without demonstrating their efficacy or safety.

Under this act, supplement companies hold free reign to promote their product in any manner. These products tend to include a single substance thought to increase performance. This substance is then surrounded by stimulants such as caffeine that make the body more sensitive to adrenaline, thereby fabricating a high that is then associated with their supplement. This increased reliance on the product creates a cycle in which the individual believes their success in the field cannot be achieved without it, and this phenomenon has led to the construction of a multi-billion-dollar industry fueled by fallacy.

One strong example would be the promotion of nitric oxide supplements. Nitric oxide, when produced by arterial endothelium, acts as a potent vasodilator and increases blood flow to the working muscle, thereby increasing performance. In theory, if one were to take in nitric oxide supplements, they would have increased blood circulation and bodily function. Based on this premise, companies have created products promising these effects. However, studies have found that supplementing nitric oxide actually decreases the body’s capability of producing it on its own. This supplement actually decreases overall body function by inhibiting the endothelium’s capability to protect itself against the stress of blood flow, causing consumers to suffer from arterial damage. Many supplements such as testosterone boosters (known to lower HDL levels), enzyme supplements (the enzyme breaks down before it can reach potency) and HMB (no conclusive data proving efficacy) fall under the same category.

Even in the dismal nature of this industry, there are some supplements that well-designed studies have deemed effective. Creatine and omega-3 tablets are a few that have exhibited their promised goals. Furthermore, to increase consumer awareness of supplement strength, organizations such as United States Pharmacopeia have made it their goal to test the supplements on the market and provide their stamp of approval.

Ever since the passage of the DSHEA, companies such as GNC and Vitamin World have been stocking their shelves with unapproved products that may or may not deliver on the claims they state. Although most of the industry lies in obscurity, there are some products that live up to their name. Finding those products, however, is the job of the scrutinizing and careful consumer. With the help of third-party organizations, consumers can take into their own hands what to purchase in the realm of supplementation. This increased awareness will help to elucidate what can and cannot contribute to living a healthy lifestyle.

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