Evaluating science and research in the supplement industry involves asking many questions. Crucially, they must be the right questions about test results and how meaningful they are when correlated with human health. Interpreting data from research on dietary supplements with appropriate questions asked is the path to products that deliver safety and efficacy, which in the end is far more sustainable than asking questions just to plug into a pre-determined marketing angle. Regulatory requirements must also be factored into the evaluation.
The field of natural compounds can be divided into two main categories: single molecules and herbal extracts.
For single compounds, there are in vitro studies, animal models, and human clinical trials where the compound is tested for a given endpoint.
For animal studies, the first question one must ask is, was the dosage used comparable to doses that have been used in human studies?
The second question is what animal model is used and does the animal have appropriate biological similarities to humans in a given area? For example, gerbils have similar brain neurobiology to humans and develop cognitive impairments comparable to human cognitive impairments.
Extrapolating the results of in vitro studies to humans should be approached with caution. The human metabolism is complex and involves forming metabolites, biologically active and inactive compounds that reside for varying times in human blood serum.
With human trials of supplements, the first question that should be asked is whether or not they are peer-reviewed, randomized, and placebo-controlled trials.
The next question is whether the number of people used in the trial has significant data to detect given result(s)?
Next, are there other clinical trials conducted with similar doses, and do the results conflict or agree with these studies?
Lastly, have meta-analyses of human clinical trials been conducted to arrive at a consensus of results?
The sponsor of the research and possible conflicts of interest should be listed when the study is published for peer review, as well as study limitations. Without these the integrity of the study is in question.
When it comes to clinical trial comparisons, ask the following: how standardized is the herbal extract to active components and are these standardizations the same or different in products used in other studies?
Due to the complex nature of herbal extracts, one should also ask whether the herbal extract manufacturer has consistency in the manufacture of his product. Ideally, the manufacturer would test the seeds of a plant used before cultivation, test for plant actives in various growing stages, and then test for the same key actives after extraction.
One red flag to look for in supplement research is manufacturers identifying wrong metabolites as being active metabolites when they are actually inactive metabolites. This is creating a shift of research down the wrong pathways and misinforming consumers in the process. Many of the “enhanced” curcumin ingredients are doing just this.
Correct conclusions depend on the supplement manufacturers providing accurate data so as not to make wrong choices, since ultimately the consumer will be affected. And providing consumers with safe and effective products that deliver what they promise should be the goal of every company