CRN Describes as Same Old Consumer Reports Article on Dietary Supplements

Consumer Reports told consumers to “always avoid" 15 supplement ingredients—but industry isn’t losing sleep.

Rachel French

July 29, 2016

5 Min Read
CRN Describes as Same Old Consumer Reports Article on Dietary Supplements

Consumer Reports told consumers to “always avoid" 15 supplement ingredients—but industry isn’t losing sleep.

Consumer Reports published in its September 2016 magazine a list of “15 supplement ingredients to always avoid." Steve Mister, president and CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) referred to Consumer Reports’ article as “same old, same old," and doesn’t expect much impact.

“They continue to bring out a very one-sided view of the industry, the history of the regulation of the industry and selectively choosing facts and anecdotes to try to paint a picture of the supplement marketplace that does not reflect what the marketplace really is … When the piece comes off as one-sided as this, I think the consumers disregard it."

Ingredients to make the list include aconite, caffeine powder, chaparral, coltsfoot, comfrey, germander, green tea extract powder, kava, lobelia, methylsynephrine, pennyroyal oil, usnic acid and yohimbe. According to Consumer Reports, all ingredients were contained in products available online or in-store at U.S. retailers CVS, Costco, GNC, Target, Vitamin Shoppe and Whole Foods.

Mister referred to the list as an “interesting collection of ingredients," and explained the list not only contains illegal ingredients, but also contains substances that aren’t sold as dietary ingredients. What’s more, some items on the list suggest the authors have little understanding of the ingredients—such is the case with powdered caffeine, he said.

“We looked at all of these retailers they listed—none of them are selling pure powdered caffeine," Mister said in a phone interview. “You can find caffeine in some of the products, but that’s not the problem FDA has identified, it’s pure powdered caffeine when it’s sold in bulk."

FDA has addressed the safety of several ingredients on the list, including powdered caffeine, kava, comfreymethylsynephrine and red yeast rice.

One ingredient on the list, methylsynephrine (also known as oxilofrine or p-hydroxyephedrine), doesn’t meet FDA’s definition of a dietary ingredient, meaning products containing methylsynephrine are considered adulterated. FDA sent warning letters in March to seven companies marketing products containing the ingredient as dietary supplements.

“FDA has been really clear [methylsynephrine] is an illegal ingredient," Mister said. “If they’re finding it in a product, they should be reporting it to FDA."

Further, Mister said some ingredients on Consumer Reports’ list are only sold as homeopathic or as aromatherapy, not as supplements.

“It shows either a real lack of understanding of the industry or an intentional distortion of it in order to create a narrative that they want to create," he said.

The list of supplement ingredients was compiled based on review by researchers at Consumers Reports of “medical studies, adverse-event case reports, government warnings, and other literature."  Criteria for the list of ingredients was developed with the help of a six-person panel of doctors and “dietary supplement experts." Each ingredient had to meet one or more of Consumer Reports’ criteria, which include association of the ingredient with kidney or liver problems, cardiac arrest or heart attack, organ failure, or risk of death; whether the ingredient has carcinogenic properties or had been found to contain pharmaceutical drugs at prescription doses; and whether FDA advised manufacturers to remove products containing the ingredient from the market.

Consumer Reports’ coverage of dietary supplements included seven additional articles, including one print-exclusive article, warning consumers about the potential health hazards of dietary supplements.

Importantly, there were some positives to the articles, as noted by Mister. The article, “Who Does Need Vitamin and Mineral Supplements," explains the need for supplementation with nutrients for certain consumers, including folic acid for women who are or may become pregnant, vitamin B12 for vegans and other nutrients for those with certain medical conditions.

“We’re happy to see they’re acknowledging that supplements do have value for better health, which some years they haven’t," Mister said.

Further, the articles remind consumers to talk to healthcare professionals, particularly when starting a new regiment.

Ultimately, the articles don’t convey the breadth of regulations governing dietary supplements and their safety, Mister argued. “There is a substantial body of regulations around the products from GMPs to the requirements on your supplement facts label to requirements for substantiation of your claims—in all of these cases, there are regulations and requirements around the products and you would not get that impression from reading the article," he said.

Additional articles published by Consumer Reports include:

  • “Supplements Can Make You Sick": Tells the story of a contaminated probiotic supplement, explores increased use of supplements by medical professionals, and skepticism regarding regulations.

  • “What ‘USP Verified’ and Other Supplement Seals Mean": A comparison of certifications from, NSF International, U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) and UL.

  • “We Made This Weight-Loss Supplement": Consumer Reports editors purchased ingredients and packaging materials to create a “mock" weight-loss supplement, “Thinitol," and claimed the process was “easy" and “fast," despite “clear violation of the FDA’s Current Good Manufacturing Practices." 

  • “What Supplement Labels Mean, and Don’t": A review of “Thinitol’s" label.

  • “Who Does Need Vitamin and Mineral Supplements?": Discusses the potential need for supplementation among certain consumers, including vegans, those who are pregnant or may become pregnant and those with certain medical conditions.

  • “The Truth About Calcium and Vitamin D Supplements": Refutes benefits of calcium supplementation for bone health based on a review of 59 clinical trials published in 2015 in British Medical Journal showing daily calcium supplementation increases bone density in people over 50 years old by 1 to 2 percent—“not enough to prevent fractures"—and suggests vitamin D doesn’t build bone based on a 2013 study published in Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism showing vitamin D didn’t improve markers of osteoporosis in postmenopausal women. However, the article cited recommendations from the U.S. Preventative Task Force suggesting vitamin D supplementation may help prevent fractures in older people by reducing the risk of falls. The article advises increasing intake of food sources of calcium and vitamin D—as well as increasing sun exposure—to achieve recommended levels.

  • “Strong, Happy and Healthy" (print exclusive): Identifies the benefits of 12 supplements and disputes with cherry-picked science.

About the Author(s)

Rachel French

Rachel French joined Informa’s Health & Nutrition Network in 2013. Her career in the natural products industry started with a food and beverage focus before transitioning into her role as managing editor of Natural Products Insider, where she covered the dietary supplement industry. French left Informa Markets in 2019, but continues to freelance for both FBI and NPI.

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