Supplements are a really, really big industry. Like, insanely big.
Annual supplement sales in the United States are expected to hit $18.3 billion by 2020.
On one hand - this is great! It means businesses offering unique products are more likely to enter the market, and consumers have plenty of choices when it comes to finding products that fit their needs.
There is a downside to the supplement market being so massive - and it’s a big downside.
When a market is worth $18+ billion, it tends to attract people and companies who are in it solely to make as much money off of consumers - that’s you - as possible. They don’t care about offering a quality product. They don’t care if you reach your goals or not. You are only worth as much money as you’re willing to put into their pockets.
While not every company is as nefarious as described in the paragraph above, many of them still engage in practices that aren’t in your best interests, that don’t result in creating great supplements, and that, ultimately, rob you of your hard-earned money.
In this article, we’re going to discuss three examples to highly how many supplement companies underdose ingredients and steal your money.
1. Misleading Serving Sizes
As a pharmacist, this one pisses me off more than any other.
Imagine if a patient came to get his blood pressure medication filled, and I sold him a bottle of “30 doses” - but he had to take TWO pills to get ONE dose, and I charged him for 60 pills - when I could have given him ONE pill to get ONE dose and only charged him for 30 pills. I would not be a licensed pharmacist for very long.
Yet this is what MANY supplement companies do with their pre-workout!
They list the serving size as one scoop - but one serving often contains 1/2 or less of each ingredient. If you pay attention to the "directions for use", you'll discover you can take two - sometimes even three - scoops for "MAXIMUM GAINZ". The biggest GAINZ happening here are to the supplement companies bottom line - because they tell you you're paying for 30 servings, even though they're only selling you 10-15 TRUE servings.
Before buying any pre-workout supplement, take these two steps to ensure you don’t get ripped off:
- Check the serving size: is it one scoop, or two scoops?
- Read the directions for use in small print on the back of the label, and see what the “maximum” recommended dose is.
If the serving size is one scoop, but you can use two or more scoops, YOU. ARE. GETTING. RIPPED. OFF!
This is how many supplement companies sell a pre-workout with “30 servings” for so cheap - in reality, you’re only getting 10-15 servings!
2. Underdosing Ingredients, ESPECIALLY in Proprietary Blends
Most people don’t research dosages for each ingredient before they buy a supplement. Although this is made much easier thanks to websites like Examine.com, it still takes time - and we have enough eating away at our time as it is. So when you buy a supplement, you’re trusting that the company you are buying from is selling you a properly-dosed product.
Unfortunately, that usually isn’t the case.
An ingredient that is almost NEVER properly dosed is L-Citrulline. The science behind L-Citrulline use for workout performance supports dosing in the range of 6 - 8g. Most products contain around 2 - 3g of L-Citrulline, some as little as 1g! Why?
- L-Citrulline is expensive.
- L-Citrulline has a very bitter/tart taste. The more you use, the more pronounced this taste in the final product.
So, rather than finding a way to properly dose L-Citrulline to create a premium, high-performing product, many supplement companies underdose it, and force you to take two or more servings to get the dosage you need to perform your best.
This gets even worse when we look at products with a “proprietary blend”.
When a supplement company uses a “proprietary blend”, they don’t have to list the amount of each ingredient contained in the formulation. They are, however, required to list 1) the total weight of the blend, and 2) the ingredients in order, from highest to lowest weight, in the formulation.
Example: GainzNPumps 3000 pre-workout has a “VEIN POPPING WORKOUT BOOSTER” proprietary blend listed. It doesn’t tell you how much of each ingredient is present - but it does list a total weight of 8g. It then lists the ingredients, in order, as L-Citrulline, Beta Alanine, L-Leucine, L-Isoleucine, L-Valine, N-Acetyl-L-Tyrosine, and caffeine.
That means the TOTAL weight of all 7 ingredients CANNOT be higher than 8g per serving.
For reference, the dosage of L-citrulline backed by science is 6 - 8g. For beta alanine, it’s 3 - 5g.
If the total weight per serving of GainzNPumps 3000’s 7-ingredient blend is 8g, you are not getting proper dosages backed by science - unless you use more than one serving, tying back into point #1 above.
Proprietary blends are bad enough in theory - the company is signaling they don’t trust you to jump ship if another brand offers the same product for one cent cheaper, so instead they prevent you from knowing exactly what is in their product.
But the worst part about proprietary blends is the manner in which they are abused to sell underdosed products to consumers.
3. Using Less Effective Ingredient Variations to Save Money
This one is tough to spot. As mentioned above, we put our trust in a company when we buy a product, because we don’t have time to research every detail.
There are different variations of some common ingredients used in workout supplements.
For example, L-Carnitine can be present as Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALCAR), L-Carnitine-L-Tartrate (LCLT), Propionyl-L-Carnitine (GPLC, as it is usually bound to the molecule glycine), and plain old L-Carnitine.
Each variation acts differently in the body and can serve a different purpose. Most research for ALCAR supports its use for mental stimulation and improved cognition. LCLT is included for power output and physical performance (although the science on this is NOT solid and results are widely variable). GPLC is used for improving issues with blood flow.
A very popular ingredient in pre-workouts right now is N-Acetyl-L-Tyrosine, or NALT for short.
As the name implies, NALT is an acetylated version of L-Tyrosine. NALT is NOT active Tyrosine - the acetyl group must be removed by the body in order to form active L-Tyrosine. The acetyl group is added because L-Tyrosine itself is not the most water-soluble molecule, whereas NALT makes it very water-soluble.
There is one major issue here: water solubility does NOT = bioavailability.
Nearly every study looking at the bioavailability of NALT has looked at intravenous (IV) administration. One study showed that IV administration - directly into the bloodstream - of NALT yielded only a 25% increase in L-Tyrosine levels in the blood. Another study showed NO - zero, nada, nothing - increase in L-Tyrosine!
Supplement companies include NALT in their pre-workout at very low levels - typically in the 500 - 750 mg range - and claim that, due to its “increased water solubility”, this is better than using pure L-Tyrosine. Don’t be fooled - avoid NALT in your pre-workout!
There are three key ways supplement companies rip you off and steal your money:
- Misleading serving sizes
- Underdosing ingredients
- Using misleading and less-effective ingredient variations
The only way to fight back is through knowledge. My goal is that this article can help you make more informed decisions when choosing supplements - especially pre-workout supplements - going forward.
-Alex Brewer, PharmD