People often forget that the supplement industry is just like any other, where product quality and consumer value can vary drastically from company to company.
While some companies actively strive to create the best possible product for the consumer, there will always be some that try to make a quick profit.
This article is going to help you separate the good from the bad and teach you the tricks of the trade that some companies may take to fool you into purchasing their less than reputable products.
Now, this isn't to say all supplements are a waste of time. The key is to stay with the research backed products or ingredients.
It’s not all doom and gloom either.
Some supplements can help to improve acquisition of lean mass, boost sports performance, and help you drop considerable amounts of body fat, all while drastically reducing markers of disease such as cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar.
Again, the key takeaway is to purchase the right ones, supported by well-designed research!
INGREDIENT DOSING AND PROPRIETY BLENDS
One common strategy companies may use is listing numerous ingredients in one product, such as a pre-workout. While these are often great at saving you money and time from having to make your own, it's important to understand that most ingredients have a "minimum threshold".
In other words, unless you ingest a specific or minimum amount, you will receive little or no benefit. For this reason, making sure your product is adequately dosed should be a top priority.
Furthermore, a half dose does not always mean you still get some benefit like you might logically think. When it comes to a lot of ingredients “it’s all or nothing”. For example, studies show if you consume 15g of whey protein you fail to muscle protein synthesis (key biological process behind building muscle).
Related: Protein Quiz - How Much Do You Really Know About Protein?
However, hit 20 or 25g (only 5 - 10g more) and you get full blown initiation of muscle protein synthesis which is equal to even higher doses.
A supplement blend with 7 under-dosed products may provide less benefit than a single ingredient supplement which is correctly dosed. You should always check the label and try to find the correct, research-proven dose.
There are a variety of articles available through Muscle & Strength which provide additional information on dosing or you can check out the folks at Examine.com who also offer a non-biased perspective on supplementation.
Understanding the above should make you approach proprietary blends with some caution, especially if they fail to list the ingredients. Why? Well, all proprietary blends are listed with the total amount (in grams) for all ingredients, meaning you have no way of telling which ingredients are dosed in which amounts.
For this reason, it is hard to know if the product at hand is well dosed. Of course, if you are going with a reputable company chances are it is well designed. However, you may want to think twice about that random brand offered at large chain stores.
In summary, do some research and find the correct and research proven dose for the ingredients you want. If you’re unsure, stick with a product and company with good reviews and a proven track record, rather than a random company nobody has ever heard of.
THE LATEST SCIENCE
It's always wise to base the majority of your diet, supplement, and exercise decisions on science, or, at the very least, have an appreciation for the science combined with practical experience. However, with the recent rise and popularity of supplement studies, caution must still be taken. Like anything, human nature can play a big role in the outcome.
For a supplement study, this may include research biases, human error, funding / financial incentives, study design, and also issues with the participants’ compliance. As you can see, there's still a lot that can go wrong or twist the results of a single study.
While most supplements that have a research backing are some of the best choices, occasionally you may come across a supplement company that “cherry picks” a positive study, when 10 other studies show no effect. Furthermore, research is extremely expensive, with some pieces of equipment costing $500,000, blood work for all participants costing several thousands, and lots of other fees that add up.
In short, a study can cost over $20,000 and someone's got to pay.
While this money may come from university or government grants, the sports supplement world is mainly funded by private companies. Although this is often not an issue, you should consider the fact that some supplement companies wouldn't be too impressed if they spent 100k on research only to be told (via their study) that their products don’t work.
This isn't to say research is a waste of time or that all researchers are frauds. As with everything, most of the time there isn’t a problem and all is above reproach. In fact, basing your decision on a research proven supplement is for the most part, extremely wise.
Related: Top 5 Supplements You Need to Be Taking
Always base your decision on supplements or ingredients supported by research. However, don’t just base it on a fancy graph or figure printed on the label. Do your own research and always double check what that study actually investigated and if you are research savvy, check to see if other studies support these findings.
PRODUCT QUALITY & INGREDIENTS
Is 3g Beta Alanine or 5g BCAA the same in every product? As you may have guessed, the answer isn’t always yes. Just like when buying groceries or any other product in the world, quality matters. Especially if it's something you are putting inside your body.
For supplements, the quality can vary dramatically. While most companies use high(er) quality ingredients, there will always be some brands trying to cut corners and use cheaper ingredients. One of the biggest issues with quality is cost. Certain raw materials are more expensive than others when sourced and processed.
As such, some companies choose to use cheaper alternatives with lower bioavailability or cut costs by using cheap additives. So, although the product may appear cheaper, you may actually be getting an under-dosed product.
Another downside of cheap ingredients is the risk of safety, cross contamination, and harmful contaminants. Several supplement companies have been in big trouble for using poor quality ingredients that contained high amounts of metals or other harmful substances. Cross contamination can also occur with many raw ingredients being made in factories.
Several top athletes have been banned or fined for supplement use, when, in actuality, the supplement they were using was fine. However, the company had let other ingredients leak into that specific product.
To counter these issues, you can pick tested products verified by an independent testing panel to ensure they are dosed effectively and free from contaminants/illegal substances. Look for this on the product label and search for "Informed Choice" or "NSF approved", two of the largest and reputable independent testing companies around.
Related: The Absolute Beginner's Guide to Bodybuilding Supplements
You should also consider buying a patent product, which means they own the patent for the specific ingredient. They always offer the highest quality and must go through regular checks and screenings to ensure their product is safe and correctly dosed.
Again, stick with a reputable and well known product that has plenty of reviews and a proven track record. If you are an athlete or need to ensure it is banned substance free, always go with a patented and third party tested supplement line.
While the main points are covered above, there are still some other considerations to be aware of. One additional issue is product testing in animals and trying to carry those results over into human terms. For example, a company might complete a study on mice, but then try to convince the consumer that the same results are possible within humans if they use the product.
While animal testing can be useful and plays a key role in scientific research, the findings don't always translate into humans. For this reason, try to pick your supplements based on human trials or a combination of both human and animal research.
Finally, don't be fooled by the oldest trick in the book: clever marketing. It's very easy to be convinced to buy a product when an individual with your dream physique is telling you how amazing it is or pretending to know how it works. Just like any business, marketing plays a massive role in the supplement and fitness industry.
As you can see, it's not always as simple as looking at the price and title of the product. Before spending your money and using the same product for years, spend 30 minutes digging for answers. Find the best companies on the market that have a high quality product based on research proven doses.