How to Detect Fraudulent & Poor Quality Products
Important Information Consumers Should Know
Consumers need to be on the lookout for fraudulent products. These are products that don't do what they say they can or don't contain what they say they contain. At the very least, they waste consumers' money, and they may cause physical harm.
Fraudulent products often can be identified by the types of claims made in their labeling, advertising and promotional literature. Some possible indicators of fraud, says Stephen Barrett, M.D., a board member of the National Council Against Health Fraud, are:
Though often more difficult to do, consumers also can protect themselves from economic fraud, a practice in which the manufacturer substitutes part or all of a product with an inferior, cheaper ingredient and then passes off the fake product as the real thing but at a lower cost. Varro Tyler, Ph.D., Sc.D., a distinguished professor emeritus of pharmacognosy (the study of medicinal products in their crude, or unprepared, form) at Purdue University in West LaFayette, Ind., advises consumers to avoid products sold for considerably less money than competing brands. "If it's too cheap, the product is probably not what it's supposed to be," he says.
- Claims that the product is a secret cure and use of such terms as "breakthrough," "magical," "miracle cure," and "new discovery." If the product were a cure for a serious disease, it would be widely reported in the media and used by health-care professionals, he says.
- "Pseudomedical" jargon, such as "detoxify," "purify" and "energize" to describe a product's effects. These claims are vague and hard to measure, Barrett says. So, they make it easier for success to be claimed "even though nothing has actually been accomplished," he says.
- Claims that the product can cure a wide range of unrelated diseases. No product can do that, he says.
- Claims that a product is backed by scientific studies, but with no list of references or references that are inadequate. For instance, if a list of references is provided, the citations cannot be traced, or if they are traceable, the studies are out-of-date, irrelevant, or poorly designed.
- Claims that the supplement has only benefits--and no side effects. A product "potent enough to help people will be potent enough to cause side effects," Barrett says.
- Accusations that the medical profession, drug companies and the government are suppressing information about a particular treatment. It would be illogical, Barrett says, for large numbers of people to withhold information about potential medical therapies when they or their families and friends might one day benefit from them.
Poor manufacturing practices are not unique to dietary supplements, but the growing market for supplements in a less restrictive regulatory environment creates the potential for supplements to be prone to quality-control problems. For example, FDA has identified several problems where some manufacturers were buying herbs, plants and other ingredients without first adequately testing them to determine whether the product they ordered was actually what they received or whether the ingredients were free from contaminants.
To help protect themselves, consumers should:
- Look for ingredients in products with the U.S.P. notation, which indicates the manufacturer followed standards established by the U.S. Pharmacopoeia.
- Realize that the label term "natural" doesn't guarantee that a product is safe. "Think of poisonous mushrooms," says Elizabeth Yetley, Ph.D., director of FDA's Office of Special Nutritionals. "They're natural."
- Consider the name of the manufacturer or distributor. Supplements made by a nationally known food and drug manufacturer, for example, have likely been made under tight controls because these companies already have in place manufacturing standards for their other products.
- Write to the supplement manufacturer for more information. Ask the company about the conditions under which its products were made.
An FDA Guide to Dietary Supplements
by Paula Kurtzweil
U. S. Food and Drug Administration
September - October 1998; Revised January 1999