If you are a subscriber to Consumer Reports (CR) magazine, you may depend on their ratings of household items and automobiles. But, would you still trust their advice if they said they don’t approve of using dish soap, toasters or televisions? Before you believe a word of the new September 2016 issue about dietary supplements, you should know that Consumer Reports is biased against supplements. Don’t take my word for it…take theirs. The graphic below is clipped from one of their newsletters. An otherwise useful editorial about telling your doctor everything quoted their medical/nutritional expert, Marvin Lipman, MD as having a “general bias against supplements”. I give him credit for at least being honest (even if he does not seem to be open-minded and well-informed on this topic).
CR really should have repeated that as a disclaimer in this month’s magazine where they quote him in a massive irresponsible attack on supplements. They obviously worked very hard to paint an ugly picture and scare readers. It would take a several-page article like CR’s to correct all the misleading impressions the piece delivers. So, instead I’ll just list a few examples and some of the general ways they went astray:
- The worst failing of this article is that it does not acknowledge the tens of thousands of scientific studies showing benefits from dietary supplements. (One of my sponsor’s ingredient has been the subject of over 700 studies!) It is just sad that they will not only frighten people away from using supplements that would improve their health, but also cause many to resort instead to pharmaceuticals with their usual high cost and proven side effects. If CR wanted to really help people, they would tell the story of magnesium—it is priceless and costs merely pennies per day. What drug can help reduce blood pressure, inflammation and cholesterol; improve depression, bone density, blood sugar control and constipation; fight migraines, muscle cramping and depression; and help normalize heart rhythms along with dozens of other benefits? Please read my newly revised article on magnesium with its updated recommendations. Even when CR says a supplement works (e.g. “St. John’s Wort may be as effective as antidepressants”) they still think you should take a drug instead of the safer supplement.
- In writing my book on probiotics, I found many studies showing that probiotics save a great many babies from horrible infant diseases. And yet CR chose to start their article with a terribly sad story about a premature baby who died as a result of a probiotic. That supplement was apparently contaminated at the hospital and so the anecdote should probably have been put into a story about the dangers of medical error.
- The magazine paints a distorted picture of supplement regulation. Nutritional supplements are indeed regulated–not only by the FDA, but also by states. Understandably, the requirements are different from those for drugs. For example, if a medication is a little bit off, that could possibly kill you…but a variance in the dose of vitamin C will not. We can buy a whole can of the spice turmeric at the grocery store. Should it require several years and a billion dollars’ worth of testing to justify selling the exact same powder in a capsule? (No company would do that because they cannot get a patent and therefore every other company could then sell the supplement without the expense.) There are cheaters in every industry. Responsible supplement makers (like our HBN radio sponsors) and their trade associations warmly welcome when the FDA cracks down on those few fringe companies who spike their products with drugs or take quality shortcuts. (Note that it seems the wrong kind of test was used in at least one highly-publicized “exposé” of supplements that supposedly did not contain what they claimed.)
- Obviously, not everything natural is safe. For example, no one takes supplements of hemlock the plant poison used to kill the ancient philosopher, Socrates. However, CR had to s.t.r.e.t.c.h to come up with their list of “15 Ingredients to Always Avoid”. Most items in it are quite rarely used if at all or are used differently than implied. One has not been sold in decades except for topical use (Comfrey). Another (Kava) was mistakenly blamed for liver damage when the problem was actually careless use of the wrong part of the plant. With some others the issue is mainly one of being sure to follow instructions and respect dosage.
- Incidents of harm are highlighted with scary high totals. First, I sure wish they had given this story a meaningful context by discussing the well over 100,000 thousand deaths each year due just to those drugs given as prescribed in hospitals. Secondly, we have to understand that when adverse events are reported to the FDA, that can just mean a pill got stuck in the person’s throat. Even with serious issues, there is no follow up investigation to determine if the supplement really was to blame or it just happened to be present along with to another problem. Don’t you imagine that if a doctor has a bias like CR’s Dr. Lipman, he or she might be quick to blame the supplement rather than one of their own prescriptions?
- CR points out that store clerks don’t always give good advice. Nutrition clerks do want to help and generally speaking they do. However, surely a consumer must bear some responsibility if they press an un-credentialed store clerk for medical advice about a serious health concern.
My advice: Follow label instructions. See your nutrition-oriented health professional for advice about disease. Buy supplements from major brands that have proper quality control and a fine reputation to protect. Be especially careful with any product that claims to cause weight loss, build muscle or enhance sexual performance. That is the quick-fix territory where scam artists skulk about. Also, be careful where you obtain your nutrition information. Consumers Reports publishes actual testing results for toasters and the like, but when it comes to supplements, they seem to rely on opinions rather than extensive research data. So, at the least I think they need to add nutritionists and integrative doctors to their staff of writers and editors—folks who will look at the weight of science and practical successful applications, not just repeat outdated prejudice. By the way, I do greatly appreciate that the magazine has taken a strong stand in favor of labeling GMO’s.