The Truth About Nutraceuticals

by Joshua Bub, DVM

     Glucosamine, fish oil, milk thistle; there’s no denying that nutraceuticals and dietary supplements are a hot topic in medicine these days. Doctors and veterinarians will commonly recommend these supplements in combination with other medications to aid in combating disease. Over the last decade, there has been an explosion in companies entering into the nutraceutical manufacturing field. A quick look for a glucosamine supplement on your local pharmacy shelf or online will bring you a slew of different brands to choose from. In choosing which of these products to purchase for your pet, how do you decide? Many will base their selection on price, hoping to save a bit of money while still providing their pet the health benefits of said nutraceutical. Others will look for reputable brands thinking that the quality should be better from a name they trust. What most people don’t know is that nutraceuticals are not regulated like prescriptions are, and many times what you see on the label may not be anywhere close to what is in the bottle…

     Before we get into why these products can be so misleading, a little background on nutraceuticals is needed. A nutraceutical is classified by the FDA under the broad category of dietary supplements. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) was signed into law in 1994 and governs the safety and labeling of nutraceuticals. Under this act, the manufacturing firms themselves are responsible for determining if their product is safe and if it does what it claims to do. These firms do not need FDA approval for their product, and in fact the only FDA oversight on these products is when the ingredient itself is first presented to the market. In other words, if glucosamine as a supplement were to be newly introduced into the market today, the FDA would review it to make sure it wasn’t harmful, but companies who then manufactured glucosamine into a pill would not need to have their product reviewed by the FDA.

     So let’s look at a fictitious glucosamine and chondroitin supplement and see what we can believe and what we can’t on the label. Let’s call this supplement BubFlex manufactured by the BubCo nutritional supplement company. BubFlex’s label states that it is a nutritional supplement designed to improve mobility and joint health in your pet. Each pill contains 800 mg glucosamine hydrochloride, 600 mg chondroitin sulfate. The instructions are to give your 30 pound pet one tablet by mouth once daily. Under other ingredients, cellulose, and titanium dioxide are listed. BubFlex looks pretty official, it’s exactly what’s been recommended for your dog, so it should be good, right? Maybe. Not one thing on that label has been confirmed by the FDA.

  • The claim that BubFlex is designed to improve mobility – this comes from BubCo.
  • The ingredient list claiming that 800 mg of glucosamine and 600 mg of chondroitin are in each pill – this comes from BubCo.
  • Even the instructions – give one tablet by mouth once daily – this comes from BubCo.

     So what you have to ask yourself when buying this product is, do you trust BubCo? You are taking this manufacturing company entirely at its word that what it says is in the bottle, and what is appropriate for your pet is true. Each BubFlex pill may only contain 100 mg of glucosamine and 50 mg of chondroitin, allowing the company to turn quite a profit since they are charging you for 800 mg and 600 mg. In addition, BubFlex may contain mercury, or other toxins, and it may use inferior sources for the glucosamine and chondroitin that are not even able to be digested by your pet. In fact, if I were a less ethical person, I could make BubFlex, throw in a tiny bit of the main ingredient, combine it with a ton of fillers and by-products that I could get for cheap, and be able to undercut the entire market on price and make a fortune; and it would be legal. But enough with this fictitious company, can things in the real world really be that bad?

     Yes. ConsumerLab.com is an independent testing agency that investigates nutritional supplements to evaluate the label claims I described above. You can subscribe to this company’s site for about $2.50/month and see the results for yourself. I’m not allowed to post the specific products and their results from this site, but the results are shocking. Many of the products from companies that you think you can trust routinely test at less than 50% of what the label claims. In rare cases, contaminants detrimental to your pet’s health can be found. These companies also frequently use substandard ingredients that your pet cannot digest, and there is no oversight to prevent them from doing so.

     So moving on from the scare tactics, what can you do to ensure that the supplement you give your pet will actually help, and do no harm? Ask your veterinarian. We are here to help you and your pet, and the only way we succeed is if our recommendations prove true and your pet benefits. We can recommend supplements that have tested well and that we have had success with in the past. Additionally, we carry many of these supplements in our hospital. The only reason we carry them, is because we trust them. Supplements such as Dasuquin made by Nutramax have undergone extensive independent testing at the expense of the company to provide the proof that what you see is what you get, and that what you get works. Otherwise, look for products that are USP certified. This is an independent testing company that analyzes nutraceuticals for many of the qualities that I discussed above.

     So do a bit of research before you buy these supplements, look at independent testing sites, ask your veterinarian for advice, and you can get a supplement that will truly provide health benefits to your pet. Or if you prefer, I have a few bottles of BubFlex for sale…

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