‘Fertility’ supplements lack scientific evidence, marketed as drugs, watchdog group says

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) reported its investigation of 39 fertility supplements found no evidence that they help women become pregnant and are being marketed as unapproved new drugs.

Josh Long, Associate editorial director, Natural Products Insider

November 21, 2019

4 Min Read
‘Fertility’ supplements lack scientific evidence, marketed as drugs, watchdog group says

An investigation into 39 dietary supplements marketed as fertility aids for women found no evidence that the products help women become pregnant, according to a watchdog group.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) alleged the supplements are being marketed as unapproved new drugs, and the nonprofit group requested U.S. regulators take enforcement action against the manufacturers of the products.

The manufacturers assert the products are for women facing “difficulty conceiving or who have underlying health conditions that put them at risk of infertility,” according to CSPI in a Nov. 15 news release. But the watchdog group reported none of the manufacturers were able to produce reasonable scientific evidence to show its products help women become pregnant.

Pressed for such evidence through email, 16 cited no supportive studies while 11 didn’t reply to requests, according to CSPI.

“Supplement manufacturers marketing fertility aids are making promises on which they can’t deliver,” Peter G. Lurie, M.D., president of CSPI, said in a statement. “They are selling false hope. They are preying on a vulnerable population. And they are diverting women away from treatments that actually have FDA approval and scientific evidence of effectiveness.”

FDA response

FDA is reviewing a letter it received from CSPI.

“We appreciate CSPI’s commitment to promoting the integrity of the dietary supplement marketplace,” an FDA spokesperson, Lindsay Haake, said in an email. “The agency takes these concerns seriously and intends to follow up on the information provided in this letter. The FDA is committed to doing everything within its resources and authorities to identify and remove unsafe and otherwise illegal products from the market.”

Based on its available resources and public health priorities, FDA will take appropriate action if it determines a product labeled as a dietary supplement violates the law, she said. Such action could include a warning letter or an enforcement action, such as a seizure of products.

FDA recommends consumers consult with their doctor, pharmacist or other health care professional before deciding to use or buy a dietary supplement. Some supplements, FDA and others warn, might interact adversely with prescription medicines.

“[I]f claims sound too good to be true,” Haake said, “they probably are.”

CSPI also urged FTC in a letter to take legal actions against the manufacturers of the fertility supplements on the basis that the products are misbranded under the FTC Act. An FTC spokesman, Mitchell Katz, said the agency does not comment on letters received from external parties.

‘Egregious misrepresentation’

According to CSPI, some manufacturers make claims that could dissuade patients from seeking effective FDA-approved drugs. For example, it noted Conceive Plus Women’s Fertility Support promises that “If you are tired of fertility drugs and their lame promises, we have news for you!”

In response to a request for comment, Conceive Plus said the above statement appears on a Amazon.com product description page and “in its context refers to other competitor supplements.” The company said it neither provided nor authorized the statement, and Conceive Plus said it had no record that CSPI made an official request for information to the manufacturer.

“Trying to conceive can be an emotional time and we understand the willingness of some consumers to expect more from a product than it may offer,” Conceive Plus added in an email for this article. “Our marketing and customer satisfaction teams focus on communicating the correct use of our products as per labelling indication and directions for use as a dietary supplement.”

CSPI said one brand acknowledged the challenges in substantiating claims that products help women become pregnant. 

“I think you’ll be hard pressed to find any supplement company that can definitively say that their product increases the chances of becoming pregnant,” the manufacturer of Fertility Support for Her allegedly wrote to CSPI. “If you do, I’d be very curious to see.”

Premama—the Providence, Rhode Island-based manufacturer of Fertility Support for Her—did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment for this article.

CSPI alleged one company—Fairhaven Health—in Bellingham, Washington made “one particularly egregious misrepresentation” by claiming 12 of 16 women in a clinical trial previously suffering from infertility were able to get pregnant through supplementation of PABA, a complex B vitamin. But the 77-year-old study was conducted in men, not women, the watchdog group reported.

Suzanne Munson, vice president of product development and compliance with Fairhaven Health, said the study referenced by CSPI "appeared in error and has been removed."

"Since 2003, Fairhaven Health has been distributing dietary supplements aimed at supporting female and male reproductive health in a manner consistent with relevant FDA (under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act) and FTC regulations," she added in an email. "We are surprised and disappointed that the CSPI chose to take aim at this category of supplements and many reputable supplement manufacturers as we believe that women (and their partners) have a legal right to take dietary supplements that they believe to be supportive of their reproductive health."



About the Author(s)

Josh Long

Associate editorial director, Natural Products Insider, Informa Markets Health and Nutrition

Josh Long directs the online news, feature and op-ed coverage at Natural Products Insider, which targets the health and wellness industry. He has been reporting on developments in the dietary supplement industry for over a decade, with a focus on regulatory issues, including at the Food and Drug Administration.

He has moderated and/or presented at industry trade shows, including SupplySide East, SupplySide West, Natural Products Expo West, NBJ Summit and the annual Dietary Supplement Regulatory Summit.

Connect with Josh on LinkedIn and ping him with story ideas at [email protected]

Education and previous experience

Josh majored in journalism and graduated from Arizona State University the same year "Jake the Snake" Plummer led the Sun Devils to the Rose Bowl against the Ohio State Buckeyes. He also holds a J.D. from the University of Wyoming College of Law, was admitted in 2008 to practice law in the state of Colorado and spent a year clerking for a state district court judge.

Over more than a quarter century, he’s written on various topics for newspapers and business-to-business publications – from the Yavapai in Arizona and a controversial plan for a nuclear-waste incinerator in Idaho to nuanced issues, including FDA enforcement of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA).

Since the late 1990s, his articles have been published in a variety of media, including but not limited to, the Cape Cod Times (in Massachusetts), Sedona Red Rock News (in Arizona), Denver Post (in Colorado), Casper Star-Tribune (in Wyoming), now-defunct Jackson Hole Guide (in Wyoming), Colorado Lawyer (published by the Colorado Bar Association) and Nutrition Business Journal.

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