If you thought that bringing your own health supplements to market would be a difficult task, you’d be very wrong.
From the outside looking in one would assume that the supplement industry is a tightly regulated and fiercely protected affair reserved only for the most highly qualified formulators and globally respected corporations.
You’d expect there to be meticulous analysis of ingredient lists, rigorous testing of formulas and strict safety controls to ensure that every supplement sold is exactly what it says on the packaging. The reality is that none of this happens.
A transparent insight into the supplement industry
Virtually anyone with zero qualifications in nutrition can create their own protein powder or multivitamin pill. You can take a supplement all the way to market with no registration documents, no safety license, and no third party analysis to verify the ingredients you are using in your product.
If you’ve ever wondered why there are so many bogus products and so much shady marketing in the supplement industry, you’ve just found your answer.
I discovered the extent of the problem when I first decided to create my own protein powder back in 2015. After years of using poor quality health supplements that didn’t deliver the results they promised on the packaging I’d become completely disillusioned with the quality of the products on the market.
So I spent more than a year of my life researching ingredients, calculating nutritional values and taste testing my recipes. And when I’d finally developed a formula I was proud of it was time for the next steps to take it to market. I was shocked at just how easy this part was.
Now I had my recipe the only thing left to do was find a manufacturer to make it for me. As soon as this box was ticked I then had free reign to sell the product directly to over 70 million people across the entire length of the UK. There were no health and safety checks I had to pass. No third party certification required to validate the ingredients were actually what I claimed on the packaging. No independent analysis to ensure the nutritional facts on the label were accurate.
We launched our first product PERFORM over three years ago now and have since developed a complete range now distributed in over 40 different countries worldwide. And throughout the entire journey we haven’t had a single visit from an authority looking to analyse our product or verify our certifications.
All tests we have ever conducted have been entirely at our own discretion because we wanted to independently verify that everything we say on our packaging is 100% accurate. Not because we had to.
The lack of policing in the supplement industry creates a marketplace free for all where virtually anything can be sold without any professional regulations or approval. And if the majority of companies are not testing their products and there is no third party that regulates the industry… how the hell can you have any idea what you are really buying? The short answer is: you probably can’t.
In the next few paragraphs I’ll be taking a closer look at three of the biggest problems with the supplement industry – and how we are doing things differently. Let's get started!
Problem #1 - Inaccurate Nutritional Values
One of the biggest issues in the supplement industry is the lack of accuracy on nutrition labels. With no authorities policing the nutritional values stated on the back of the pack, it is impossible to know what is correct and what isn’t.
The extent of this problem was revealed in a South African study on protein powders released in 2015. I’ve put a short video below so you can see what they found:
Credit: Rafael Pinto
As you can see there is a huge variance between the nutritional values stated on the pack compared with the independent test results. And even the results that ‘comply’ with the official regulations can still be wildly inaccurate. For example, the acceptable tolerance of 25% means that a protein powder stating 30g of protein on the label could actually have anywhere between 22.5g and 37.5g without breaching any laws.
I’d like to think that most of the supplement companies on the market are not out to deceive us or deliberately lie about their products. But even the ones with the best intentions can make massive errors on their labels simply due to poor calculations.
In order to get accurate results nutritional values should always be calculated by a third party lab. But lab tests are expensive, which is why the vast majority of supplement companies calculate their nutritional values in house.
This leads to a tremendous amount of errors on nutrition labels across the entire supplement industry. There are so many variables when calculating nutritional values that it is virtually impossible to get an accurate result unless they are independently tested.
Here is the perfect example of a supplement brand that have clearly botched their nutritional facts:
As you can see this product claims to have 23.6g of protein per 25g serving. But anyone with an ounce of nutritional knowledge would know that this was impossible to achieve.
This is because the protein sources they are using in this product, pea and rice protein, have a protein content that ranges between 70 – 80%. Even in the best possible scenario, 25g of pea and rice protein would only yield a 20g protein content. And that calculation doesn’t take into account the other ingredients found in this product which are: natural flavouring, thickeners (guar gum, xanthan gum), colourant (beetroot red), acidity regulator (monopotassium phosphate), sodium chloride, sweetener (sucralose).
None of these ingredients provide an adequate source of protein, yet they are all contributing to the total weight of the product. Using basic calculations I can work out that they would compose between 7 – 12% of the product. At the best possible scenario this would reduce the total protein intake to 18.6g.
And then on top of all that there is the moisture content of the protein. When the nutritional values of protein powders are calculated they are done so using dry weight, but typically pea and rice protein contain between 5 – 8% moisture content. So when the moisture in the final product is accounted for we’d be looking at 17.7g of protein – again as a best-case scenario.
This isn’t an attack on Awesome Supplements, as I’m sure if you were to dig more deeply on most other supplement brands you would find similar results. But this does demonstrate just how wary you need to be when reading a nutritional label.
What we’re doing differently
In order to ensure our product claims are completely accurate we calculate all of our nutritional values using independent lab tests. Here is an example of the most recent test results conducted on our protein powder.
Problem #2 - Heavy Metals
I’ve always been aware that high levels of heavy metals were a problem in the supplement industry. But a 2018 study released by Clean Label Project left me shocked at just how far this problem extends.
The term ‘heavy metals’ refers to metals such as cadmium, lead and mercury that are found in the soil and are particularly concentrated in areas of high pollution and / or heavy reliance on pesticide use. Heavy metals build up in our cells and have been linked to problems with the nervous system, heart and brain.
The study in question analysed an extensive range of protein powders and found ‘alarming levels’ of heavy metals in many of the best selling and most trusted brands on the market. Plant based proteins were the worst offenders; Vega, Sunwarrior and Garden of Life products were all listed in the 5 most toxic products.
Here is another short video analysing this study:
Credit: Clean Label Project
The reason heavy metals are such a big problem in the world’s most popular protein powders can be summarised and reduced down into just two words. Profit margins.
These global megabrands source eye-wateringly cheap protein sources grown on huge industrial farms with poor soil quality and heavy reliance on chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
They then skip the all-important heavy metal checks to save a few more dollars on their bottom line. And when they are finally exposed for heaving a product that is potentially toxic to human health they still have the audacity to act surprised.
What were doing differently
Seeing these reports made me even more committed to providing the cleanest, safest and healthiest plant based supplements on the planet. This is why we follow these three steps to ensure all of our products come with zero risk of heavy metal toxicity:
Step 1: Testing at source
To ensure our finished products are free from heavy metals, we must first look at the raw materials that go into them.
This is why all of the ingredients we use in our products are tested at the source for heavy metals and other contaminants. This way we can guarantee that they are safe before they even come into our manufacturing facility. Check out this article on protein powder and whether or not your protein powder is doing more harm than good!
Many manufacturers skip this important step in order to save cost, but we refuse to compromise on the quality of our ingredients and potentially risk any negative health consequences as a result.
Step 2: Trusted suppliers
To ensure we are using the highest quality ingredients possible we only work with the most reputable suppliers, farmers and growers.
All of our suppliers meet strict EU compliance and quality control standards, so we can guarantee that no corners are being cut when growing our ingredients.
Furthermore, all of our ingredients are grown without pesticides, herbicides and fungicides in order to meet our VGanic commitment to quality. Ingredients grown in this way have been shown to have significantly lower levels of heavy metals when compared to conventionally grown ones.
Step 3: Batch testing
The final and most important step to ensure our products are heavy metal safe is to independently test the finished formulas. We batch test our formulas every three months and share these reports for full transparency to anyone who uses our products.
Our most recent results show that all of our formulas contain less than 0.1mg per KG of lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium which puts them far below the minimum safety standard set by both the EU and FDA authorities. Here is a copy of our most recent heavy metal tests if you wish to review them yourself!
Problem #3 - False claims and buzzwords!
The last issue in the supplement industry that I will be writing about today is the issue of false advertising that I see again and again on supplement labels across the world.
Remember that there are no third parties policing the supplement industry to ascertain whether product formulas are honourable and true. This results in a box of marketing tricks more shady than the floor of the Amazon rainforest.
A common practice utilised by supplement brands is to use outrageously small amounts of ‘buzzword’ ingredients in their recipes, and then fill the majority of the formula up with much cheaper and less beneficial ones.
This way they can still make all the claims surrounding a hot new ingredient or exotic superfood on their label… whilst keeping their production costs at rock bottom.
No one is going to notice… right? Wrong. With a bit of digging you can usually get to the bottom of what is an effective formula and what isn’t.
I found the perfect example of this in a UK based company called Lean Greens not so long ago. Advertised as a way to ‘flood your body with nutrients’, Lean Greens is supposedly a powerful greens formula packed with powerful superfoods such as wheatgrass, spirulina, broccoli and spinach.
Let’s take a closer look at the nutrition label for a second…
On first inspection Lean Greens looks like a legitimate product. With 8 different nutrient dense greens you’d feel reasonably confident that you’d be consuming a decent amount of nutritional value in each serving. But when you look at the quantities of these ingredients you soon realise that this isn’t quite the case.
Even the highest active ingredient, spinach, is only provided at a serving of 525mg - just over half a gram. That’s less than one spinach leaf, when you can pick up a full bag of spinach at your local supermarket for less than £1.00. (incidentally, a tub of Lean Greens currently retails at £47.99. Work that one out for yourself.)
Work your way further down the ingredients list, and you’ll see that you get a grand total of 375mg of chlorella and spirulina combined. To put this into perspective, that’s about one twelfth of a teaspoon. But at least there’s some broccoli in there, right? Well… kinda. At 112mg, it equates to 714 times less than the recommended serving size of broccoli that you would need to meet one of your ‘five a day.’
In total, you get 1.984 grams of ‘active’ ingredients in a 15gram scoop of Lean Greens. This is the perfect example of ingredient buzzwords being used fraudulently to deceive unsuspecting customers into spending their hard earned cash on what is promoted as a ‘health’ product.
If you’re curious, the remaining 13.016 grams of Lean Greens is made up primarily of maltodextrin. That’s over 86% of the total product.
For those of you that don’t know, maltodextrin is a cheap starch molecule derived from corn or wheat, commonly used as a filler or bulking ingredient in products such as this one. Oh, and it’s also given to horses to promote weight gain.
In many ways, Lean Greens are setting themselves up for failure by voluntarily listing the amounts of each ingredient on their label. By law they are not required to do so, which is why many brands do not disclose the amounts of the ‘functional’ ingredients that they use in their products.
I found another example of this in a product called ‘Strippd Vegan Lean Protein’.
Although marketed as a ‘pea and hemp blend with natural yerba mate extract,’ when we examine the label we see that the last two ingredients on the list are hemp and yerba mate. As ingredients are listed in order of volume, this means that hemp and yerba mate are the two lowest ingredients on the list.
This is enough to raise eyebrows in itself, but what is even more alarming is that they are listed below stevia, a sweetener that requires just trace amounts to generate an intense sweetness. A typical dose of stevia would be between 0.3 – 0.5% of the product. Assuming even the best case scenario, this means that this ‘pea and hemp blend with yerba mate extract’ contains less than 0.5% hemp and yerba mate!
As a general rule, the functional ingredients should be listed nearer the top of an ingredients list. If one of the selling points on the label sits towards the bottom, alarm bells should start ringing.
What we’re doing differently
To ensure all of our formulas are truly effective we only add an ingredient when it can be included at a functional dose.
For example – last year we opted to add reishi mushroom to our perform protein powders. There had been a huge amount of research emerging about the health and performance benefits of reishi, and after reviewing this evidence with our nutritionists we decided that it would make a beneficial addition to our existing formulas.
However, all of the research showed that for maximum benefits we should consume the fruiting body extract of the reishi mushroom. Most suppliers were selling the mycelium extract, which offers just a fraction of the beneficial compounds found in the fruiting body. To learn more about mushrooms, check out this article based on the amazing health benefits mushrooms contain.
So we searched high and low for a supplier of fruiting body extract and eventually found one that met our criteria. The price was around 6x more expensive than a typical mycelium extract, but if we wanted to provide the stated health benefits it was more than worth it.
We then found that we needed 250mg of this extract to deliver a functional dose. How much do you think we included in our formula? You guessed it… exactly 250mg.
If you look throughout our product range you will find examples of this everywhere. When choosing ingredients for our products our rules are simple; if it can’t be included in a functional dose that will make a tangible difference to the person consuming it, we’re not going to put it in.
The future of the supplement industry
My vision with Vivo Life is to create a supplement brand that offers so much radical transparency behind everything we do, other companies will have no choice but to also be radically transparent if they want to compete.
If their intentions are true and they have done the proper research required, there is no reason that a supplement brand should need to withhold any information from their consumers. If you are currently purchasing from a brand that does so I strongly recommend treading carefully.
In a marketplace where virtually anyone can create their own supplement brand we need much stronger regulations to ensure that all products are safe, effective, and actually do what they say on the packaging.
Until such time as that happens, we promise that we will always take the highest possible level of care creating products that you can truly trust. As always we are incredibly grateful for the continued support of our customers that allows us to stay true to our values and to continue raising the bar.
Thank you for reading, and for helping to make this all possible.