Supplements: Beyond The Labels

Americans spend about $l4 billion a year on dietary supplements and herbal remedies. Do they always get what they pay for? CBS News Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin has the second of two reports.


So, you've decided to try the dietary supplement Gingko Biloba to improve your memory. But when you go to the store, how do you choose from the dozens of brands sitting on the shelf? More often than not, consumers admit, it's a leap of faith.

Many believe reading the labels is the solution. But when it comes to the unregulated universe of dietary supplements, what's on the label isn't always what's in the bottle, meaning you're not always getting what you pay for.

How serious is the issue of getting ripped off? "That's a real concern," says Tod Cooperman, who runs a brand new company called Consumerlab, the first company dedicated to testing dietary supplements to see if they contain the products they say they contain. Consumerlab buys products off store shelves, and sends them to independent labs, where they are broken down and analyzed for content.

So far, Consumerlab has tested three top selling products.

  • Gingko Biloba, for memory: Out of 30 brands tested, seven failed.
  • Saw Palmetto, for prostate health: Ten out of 27 failed.
  • Glucosamine combined with chondroitin, for arthritis: Six out of 13 failed.
Everything that failed was tested twice. "All we can say is they don't have the ingredients that one would expect, based on products that have been shown to work," Cooperman says.

For example, in order for saw palmetto to improve prostate health, studies suggest it should contain saw palmetto extract. This product, which failed the test, contained only saw palmetto powder.

"To get the advantages of saw palmetto here, you would need to take ten to 20 pills a day," says Cooperman.

While weeding out bad apples, the tests also confirm that the majority of supplements are OK. A supplement industry spokesman advises consumers to know the company they're buying from. "They should be buying from a well recognized company they've had experience with," says John Cordaro of the Council for Responsible Nutrition.

Whether or not supplements work may still be up for debate, but one thing is certain: If you're not getting the right ingredients, there's little hope they'll help.

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