I frequently get requests from friends and clients for advice on supplements that they're taking.
Often, what they're taking is ridiculously overpriced, under-dosed and at times even counterproductive.
There are quite a few reasons behind this, but for this article I'm going to focus on one concept in particular.
Dubious manufacturers in the supplement industry use a term referred to as "fairy dusting" when dosing the ingredients in their supplements.
Fairy dust is an ingredient in a supplement included in such tiny and usually indirectly specified amounts as to make it worthless.
Here's an example: Imagine you find a supplement claiming to increase physical performance and cognitive function, aid in thermoregulation and facilitate nearly every metabolic process in the body. It's such an important nutritional factor that individuals who are excessively deprived of this substance will die. It's even referred to in ancient texts and people have been reaping its powerful benefits for centuries in, oh, lets say China.
The bottle on the shelf contains 30 one tablespoon doses of this wonderful product for the low, low price of 50 dollars and every claim on the label is scientifically verifiable.
What is this miracle supplement you ask? Water.
This is one of the first ways that fairy dusting works. Manufacturers take an ingredient with valid health benefits, put such a tiny amount in the product that it may as well not exist, mark up the price and then market the heck out of it. This isn't just any water, this is a proprietary water blend with "Isotonic Inner Q Plex Technology."
Pay attention to the presence of phrases like this. Do you know what "Isotonic Inner Q Plex Technology" means? Of course not, and the people selling you this crap know that. Generally, these are meaningless terms added to sound impressive.
The second trick behind fairy dusting is to use what is termed a "Proprietary Blend." In theory, this refers to a blend of several substances existing in proportions that the manufacturer doesn't want to reveal out of concerns of other companies stealing their recipes. Using the proprietary blend label allows the manufacturers to list the ingredients in their secret formula without giving away exactly how it is made.
In reality, this allows companies to toss a bunch of good-sounding stuff together without the pesky constraint of revealing if it's in a dosage that will actually have a beneficial effect.
For example, I once checked out a protein supplement that a client of mine was taking. It contained a proprietary blend with a label that sounded quite a bit like "Inner Q Plex." This blend contained Lipoic Acid, Kelp, Alfalfa, Coenzyme Q10 and Ginseng.
With the exception of the alfalfa, which is a potentially allergenic grass, these are all beneficial things. Kelp is certainly nutritious, but really, it's seaweed. It's more a food than a drug, so taking it in a small amount of powder makes about as much sense as a 1 gram capsule of chicken.
Now for the beneficial ones: Coenzyme Q10 has been proving extremely valuable in recent research. It is a potent antioxidant, is crucial for heart health, is involved in the formation of ATP, influences the stability, fluidity, and permeability of cell membranes, and has beneficial effects on cell signaling and gene expression. It's even been shown to improve aerobic power, anaerobic threshold and time to exhaustion in athletes.
Likewise, lipoic acid and ginseng (there are a number of varieties and this product didn't bother to specify which it was using) have all been found to have some pretty substantial benefits.
Here's the catch: This super-duper proprietary blend totaled 50 milligrams per serving. The benefits I listed for Coenzyme Q10 are for doses at and above 300 milligrams per day. Lipoic acid and ginseng also require doses at least several times higher than 50 mg.
However, 50 milligrams isn't even the dose for each of these ingredients. It's the total of all of them. It's the common practice of shady supplement companies to dose ingredients in their proprietary blends in order from cheapest to most expensive. Most likely, the 50 milligrams of the "Inner Q Plex" blend is mostly alfalfa. Cattle feed. Next would be some seaweed. It's reasonable to estimate that there would be less than 5 milligrams each of the Co Q10, lipoic acid and ginseng.
Now, the most heavily marketed aspect of this product is the health benefits of Co Q10 and the rest of the ingredients in this blend. Considering that the Q10 is dosed at right around 2% of its effective dosage and that the others are in that area as well, what exactly are you paying for, and how ethical is this company?