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Counterfeiting and Consumer Trust In The Health Supplement Industry

When a company uses the credibility of a high quality branded ingredient to build the reputation of a finished product, then quietly switches this key

Labeling for products that meet the USDA-NOP s...

Labeling for products that meet the USDA-NOP standards (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

ingredient for a low quality ‘knockoff,’ I call this nutritional counterfeiting. Consumers think they are taking the original product because the packaging looks identical minus the little branded ingredient logo, but what they don’t know is that the key active ingredient has been switched out for one which may not give them the results of the first ingredient.

As a researcher in a new study on a plant-based calcium supplement, it was on the top of my mind when I recently visited some local vitamin stores looking for some calcium for my family and myself . I was impressed with the results of this marine algae calcium versus the other two leading calcium sources, so I wanted to see in what brands of finished products this ingredient was added . Retail staff at two of the four stores I visited instantly recognized the plant calcium ingredient (AlgaeCal®) that was the subject of my study, and suggested New Chapter Inc’s product, Bone Strength Take Care, as the most popular calcium product in their stores – but when I looked for the AlgaeCal ingredient on the label, it was nowhere to be found! The store staff were visibly befuddled and unable to answer why the AlgaeCal had been switched or how the new calcium ingredient compared. In fact, three out of four of the store’s management had not realized that there was an ingredient change until I inquired.

The manufacturer had simply shipped the new formula and not notified the stores of the key ingredient change, i.e, the calcium substitution.

Although I’m in no way affiliated with the manufacturers of AlgaeCal or paid by them, I made it my business to learn about it over the months that the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and Harvard University Medical School conducted the human osteoblast study. I learned AlgaeCal is the only certified organic calcium source in the world. It is picked by hand from South American coastal waters while it is living. The Atlantic ocean pushes new tennis ball sized pinkish algae up onto the sandy beaches every day and they are picked before the sunshine turns them white. Like apples falling from a tree, they are either used immediately or they go to waste – in other words they are sustainably and ecologically harvested. But, what impresses me most about this unique calcium ingredient is that it has been the subject of more than a dozen research studies looking at bone density, bio-availability, tolerability, safety and other parameters.

With the scientific support, ecological accreditation, and organic certification of AlgaeCal it is evident why New Chapter used it in its Bone Strength Take Care product to begin with. However, it appears that they must have switched to another form of marine algae calcium sometime early 2010. From my inquiries, it is evident this new product is a different algae species and nothing like the AlgaeCal. It is primarily dead when vacuumed from the ocean floor in an industrial scale dredging operation. A large percentage of the vacuumed material is then discarded from the ship, effectively silting the surrounding area and suffocating local species. And, more to my surprise and concern, this calcium has no bone density research. They do have one bio-availability study but it only measures an exaggerated parathyroid hormone response to calcium – a study design that is flawed and not accepted by the research community. For a product like calcium that I expect to take for the next several decades, I don’t want to

roll the dice on whether it’s helping my bones or not. I want good well designed research studies showing that it is safe and efficacious. With a few phone calls, I learned that this ingredient costs about 1/5th to 1/7th of what AlgaeCal costs, so I believe the motive for switching is obvious.

Retailers, such as Whole Foods Market and others, which adhere to stringent environmental commitments, routinely remove products that harm the environment, so I was surprised to see this product on their shelves. Very recently, Krill oil supplements have been banned by Whole Foods Markets because of the potential threat of over-harvesting. More relevant is the case of coral calcium, which was also removed from Whole Foods shelves several years ago due to ecological concerns – and it is harvested by the same vacuum methods as the new calcium substitute in Bone Strength Take Care. If my ad hoc market survey is any indication, even the largest and most ethical retailers are being duped. Along with millions of consumers, I believe that Whole Foods and other retailers are victims of nutraceutical supplement counterfeiting.

If a company invests in purity, ecological harvesting practices, certifications, and multiple studies for their ingredient as in the case of AlgaeCal, and a manufacturer uses those selling points to get their finished product to the top (Bone Strength is the number one selling calcium in health food stores today according to available market data), they should at least announce a switch to a lesser calcium, substantially change their packaging, and reduce their price. New formula Bone Strength Take Care was on the store shelves for around $60 per bottle – the most expensive calcium I’ve seen. If I’m going to pay that much for a bottle of calcium, it had better contain the real ingredient! I hope that consumers and retailers do the right thing and send a message to all companies in this industry who steal the thunder of genuine ingredient suppliers. Look for the logo of branded and well researched ingredients and support those companies who conduct high quality research for their ingredient.

<a href=”http://www.nutritionaloutlook.com/author/manashi-bagchi”>Manashi Bagchi</a>, Ph.D., FACN

Dr. Bagchi has been associated with a number of top universities and is a leader in nutraceutical research for more than 20 years. She has more than 200 peer-reviewed publications in the fields of toxicology and safety, nutrition, clinical studies and genomics research. She worked as an Associate Professor in the Creighton University Medical Center, Omaha, NE, for about 10 years, and also served as a reviewer in the NIH study section. Her most recent edited book entitled “Genomics, Proteomics & Metabolomics in Nutraceuticals & Functional Foods” was published by Wiley-Blackwell, USA, in 2010.

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