Supplement Scammers: How to Avoid Getting Scammed!
The supplement industry has gone from being a two horse race in an underground fad-sport back in the 1960's and 70's, to today being a multi-billion dollar mainstream industry. Fitness and bodybuilding has become big business in the past ten years with new target markets, and more new supplement companies have sprouted up in the last 2 years than in the entire decade before it.
The advantages in having a lot of competition in the market include higher quality products, more progressive research into new muscle building compounds, and lower prices. Unfortunately with the millions at stake, come the downside; the lies, deceit and the scams.
There are two main types of supplement scams; Label Claim Scams/Advertising Scams, and Product Scams. With this article I will take a closer look at some (not all) supplement scams, and give you tips on how to best spend your hard-earned money.
*Disclaimer: The information presented below is partly that of the author's and other bodybuilding writer's opinion, and may not be actual fact. The reader is encouraged to do their own research into the evidence presented before making assumptions or believing the opinions presented about individual companies or products.
Label Claim and Advertising Scams
By definition, a label claim scam is: A supplement which when tested does not contain the product in the amounts indicated on the label. This is usually a result of poor quality control or outright deceit on the part of the company.
Who is doing it?
Small companies are the biggest proprietors of label claim scams. Contrary to popular belief, small individually owned companies have the worst instances of poor quality control and failed label tests. Why is this? Well first we have to take a quick look at the process a supplement must go through before reaching the store shelf.
Many people have the notion that supplement companies have large factories: in go the raw materials and out of come the finished products we buy at the store or off the Internet. Wrong! Each supplement company sources out producers of each of its products. Creatine might come from a large German or small Chinese company, protein from an American one, tribulus from a lab in Bulgaria. The supplement company gives these suppliers exact instructions on the amounts that should appear in specific compound that that lab or company is supplying, who in turn follow these instructions and ship the finished product to the supplement company for further product additions from other suppliers, or for packaging. Now pretend you are a materials supplier in any industry. Which one of your customers are you likely to spend the most effort to keep satisfied that they are receiving a good product and service? Why the ones that spend the most money with you of course! The big boys. You'll want to make sure that your products meet their standards and service meets their deadlines, or else you may find another supplier stealing away your business. Conversely you'll be less worried about your smallest clients if a shipment is late or in exact amounts of a product get shipped.
The same is true in the supplement industry. The only companies that are putting out products that meet the claim on the label the majority of the time are the large companies. Think about it, if EAS or Twinlab are spending 1 million dollars for a batch of creatine from SKW in Germany (who by the way is charging twice as much as a Chinese company), don't you think EAS or Twinlab is going to be testing the product to make sure they're getting their million dollars worth? You'd better believe it. Companies like EAS, Twinlab, MuscleTech, and Labrada have as many as 5 different independent labs testing their products to make sure they're getting what they paid for. The fact that they have lab tests for consumers to see is secondary. The problem with testing is that it's expensive, so smaller companies in order to cut costs, don't test every batch, and odds are they're getting batches from their suppliers that are slightly off or sometimes even WAY off what they're supposed to be getting. Is this done on purpose? Yes and no, everyone makes mistakes, however the smaller companies won't always catch them or are simply too greedy to catch them. Lately smaller companies like have been posting a test or two on their websites (something larger companies don't do) claiming that their brand is the only ones that meet label claims and that the printed test is the proof. The sad thing is, it's probably a test from one batch or one can, and that other batches have slipped past them and onto unsuspecting customers.
To avoid getting scammed this way, a good rule of thumb is to always buy from the big companies. Some (but not all) include, companies formerly part of the Weider empire (Metaform, Schiff etc), Twinlab, EAS, MuscleTech, Labrada, and Next Proteins. Be leery of mid sized companies, and completely avoid small, new, or independent companies. Remember what your parents told you, quality is better than quantity and you get what you pay for-- after all you don't buy your clothes at Wal-Mart, so why would you buy cheap supplements from small companies?
Advertising Scams occur when companies misquote studies and scientific findings in ads and/or sell incredibly large quantities of a product for a low price. Some of the major proprietors of this scam lately have been the "Enforma System", the makers of a popular creatine serum (see vol. 1 of Industry Insider for that one) and the sellers of the giant 5lb tubs of protein. There are many more who do this, and once again, it's the smaller companies who are the villains.
(By the way can anyone name the most famous Advertising Scam in supplement history? If you said Bill Phillips "Feels like I'm on Deca" quote, you're right!)
The 5lb bucket of whey scam is one of the largest in the business, and the sad thing is, is that is goes on right under peoples noses. I mean who wouldn't want to get 5lbs of protein for $30? I know I've bought into this scam myself. Here's how it works:
Commercially purchased whey protein comes in basically 3 concentration formats: 34% concentrate, 75-80% concentrate, and up to 97.5% isolate. Companies like, oh we'll call them, Opticrud, will blend 34% concentrate, which costs less than 40 cents a pound with the 75% concentrate to achieve a protein concentration of about 50 to 60%. If there is any isolate on the label, it's not in the bucket. When you figure in the odds of error in that particular bucket, you may end up with 50-55% protein. The rest is usually lactose, aspartame, ash and whatever flavoring they're using. That's not the whole of it either. When companies like Nolab and Opticrud don't know is that when the protein is heated during the filtering process which removes the lactose; the higher the percentage of protein concentration yield, the more extensive filtering process it must go through. This is an expensive process and goes up exponentially to the percent of protein yielded, the protein fractions are become damaged. The delicate protein fractions become cross-linked and this cross-linking damages the unique functional properties of the native whey. Now this protein cross-linking is perfectly fine for what 34% whey is intended to be used for and that's in food processing for things such as potato chips, however the functional properties of whey used for this purpose don't matter, nobody eating potato chips or eating cakes worries about nitrogen retention, cysteine modulation or antioxidants. So what you end up buying in those 5lb tubs of whey is about half protein, and that protein consists largely of cross-linked fractions that will have little effect on muscle growth. This defeats the entire purpose of supplementing whey protein in the first place as your muscles need a very efficient and effective nitrogen source for them to grow. Those cheap whey buckets sure aren't giving them that. I spoke with a few guys from various supplement companies, and a 5lb bucket of all whey isolate will easily run at a retail price of around $100.
Another possible scam as of late involves supplements made of or containing 5-methyl-7-methoxy isoflavone. The majority of studies done on this compound were performed on farm animals back in the late 1970's in Hungary. Not many, if any clinical studies on this isoflavone have been conducted on humans, and to my knowledge, none on athletes. Most other isoflavones can actually have negative effects from a muscle building point of view as most isoflavones tend to inhibit 17beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (the enzyme responsible for converting precursor hormones into testosterone), isoflavones with the 7-methoxy or 8-hydroxyl groups on the A ring do not inhibit this important enzyme. All this means is that 5-methyl-7-methoxy isoflavone doesn't lower testosterone like other isoflavones (notably chrysin or even soy), however there is no supportive scientific research that shows exactly what this product can do. I believe it's simply of case of companies that we'll simply call JEN, BioJest and Bytodyne, jumping the gun on something that looks promising, without really having any research to prove more than just a handful of the claims made on these products.
Another common advertising scam is the Q&A scam. Many supplement companies have websites where "readers" submit questions for answers that sometimes involve supplements. Most times whatever supplement company is hosting the site will promote their own products, which is perfectly legit, however in some cases, like when a new protein product is stealing sales away from their own or a competitor releases a knock-off, companies will have readers make assumptions regarding other companies products and then simply agree with what the "reader" stated. Any company that would allow an uneducated reader to make a guess as to how tests results came about and then print and agree with the statement without any proof is simply attempting to sway other uneducated readers away from a possibly better supplement.
Look for errors when reading advertisements. Good companies spend hours editing and checking expensive ads before they go to press. If they can't get simple spelling and grammar correct, imagine what is inside the container of creatine you just bought from them! A company named after a former Mr. O is infamous for running the same $1000+ ad every month major magazines with the word "protein" spelled "prtein".
Be careful about what you hear at GNC as well. Most GNC workers don't know their ass from a hole in the ground. They are heavily influenced to sell certain brands. A couple of friends and myself performed a test on GNC lately, we went around and asked a few of them why they don't stock Hydroxycut (a popular fat burner by Canadian supplement maker, MuscleTech); remember I live in Canada. The response we got from each was surprising. They all gave us a similar story about MuscleTech not being reputable as the reasoning behind GNC not stocking the product. This turned out to only be their opinions as neither could give a source or reasoning behind this, just that they heard it somewhere. The real reason why Hydroxycut is not carried at GNC in Canada is because Ma Huang is illegal to sell in Canada and Hydroxycut contains the herb. GNC in the United States sells it everywhere. Don't rely on anyone at GNC or any supplement store to direct you to a new supplement purchase. (By the way the rumors that MuscleTech, Beverly International Nutrition and a certain other companies are not reputable come mostly from the competitor-produced book "Lab Test Review" which contained faked and/or altered lab tests done on various companies products. The book is no longer in print, however the damage has been done and many companies, MuscleTech and Beverly International, included, received a black eye in the eyes of some hardcore bodybuilders)
One final scam of this type is ZMA. Advertised as a way to increase testosterone levels. However, what happens when zinc levels become non-deficient, which is what will happen through use of this supplement? Testosterone levels become normal. A cheaper and easier way to get zinc is to buy it in vitamin form (just zinc) for half the price.
A product scam can be many things, the above isoflavone scam can be also considered a product scam if no evidence is found on it, but basically a product that has a small amount of science behind it, but no real proof that it actually works, yet is hyped to the gills and labeled misleadingly is a product scam.
HMB is by and large the biggest supplement product scam ever. The problem doesn't lie with the compound itself. It does indeed work, however it doesn't work the way the supplement companies who market it (namely EASY and Swindelab) will have you believe. HMB (metabolite beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate monohydrate) has been found in studies to be effective at an intake level of around 30 grams a day. If you look closely at an HMB product you'll find that the company's label advises 3g a day. These companies aren't stupid you see. They know HMB won't work at those dosages however, who would buy it if the label said 30 g a day at the cost upwards of $100 per 360 capsule bottle. Nobody. The actual label (EASY) states: As a dietary supplement, take 4 capsules 3 times per day with meals. (4 capsules contain 1 g of HMB). Anyone feel like taking 120 capsules a day of HMB? I didn't think so.
There are many more like HMB, Boron, smilax, pyruvate, etc, etc. The list goes on forever, and by now we all know them well. Be smart when you shop. Read up on a product and its ingredients before you spend your money on them.
How to avoid being scammed
My first rule is to always buy supplements that have clinical lab studies to back them up. EAS started this a few years back. Naysayers will almost always point out that each supplement company will fund it's own studies and that they don't count. Those people are jackasses. Who else is going to study those products? Do you think the New England Journal of Medicine is going to feature a study on Cell-Tech? Or that Universities across Europe are doing independent studies on Twinlab's Male Fuel? Not likely. The only method a supplement company has of proving the worth of their products is to fund tests and research on them. If the company you use can't take the time to show you why their product works like they say it does, then why are you giving them your money? Look on labels and read up on literature of the product for the words "University Tested" or "Clinically Proven". (Realize that this is for newer, less common products; things like ordinary whey protein and creatine have been proven over and over; reserve this for new fat burners or ZMA type supplements). If the company can't provide a reference for you, don't buy from them.
My second rule is to avoid supplement companies that contain any products like the HMB example in their product line. After all if you went to Pizza Hut and ordered pepperoni on your pizza and when you get it expecting it to be loaded with pepperoni wouldn't you be pissed to find only a few slices of meat? Chances are you'd never go back there again right? So why buy any product from a company that rips you off on one of their products? You're not going to order a Hawaiian Pizza Hut pizza next time. Hell no! You're going to Little Caesar's. Do the same with supplements. Find a company with a product line void of rip off supplements. If they aren't channeling their money into rip off supplements, it means they're spending it on quality control and research for new products.
My third rule is to always buy quality; you get what you pay for. Supplements aren't something that if you buy it and it's a cheap rip off like a crappy lawnmower, you leave out in your backyard to rust and write it off as a learning experience. Supplements are drugs that you are putting into your body that affect the way it works. Just like you don't put cheap gas into a Porsche, or buy a cheap suit for an interview; don't put cheap supplements into your body. Expect to pay a little more for something that works well.
Finally, note that FTC rules are very strict now days when it comes to advertising. Companies can no longer make claims in magazine ads without tests to back them up. So read the ads carefully. Look for references to scientific case studies. Be an informed consumer, not a mindless consumer.
We all work hard for the money we earn. Nobody likes to be stolen from, yet every time we buy scam supplements, that is exactly what is happening. Some scams may just be a bad batch that got by a tester, or it could be something more serious like a deliberate rip-off. Either way, know what you are buying before you buy it. If you're interested in a certain product, and the advertisement doesn't give you enough information, contact the company and don't be afraid to ask the tough questions. Most good companies have 1-800 number call centers to take your questions. They know that smart consumers don't just shell out a little extra more without knowing what they are getting.
You get what you pay for. Buying the right supplements to go along with a good work ethic and a sound diet can be the difference between having a body that looks like a BMW, or a body that looks like a Ford Pinto.