"Trying to get ripped? You might be getting ripped off."

These headlines were part of a CBC Marketplace and Fifth Estate episode that aired last week (Friday, November 13th) as an expose of the whirling litany of crimes that are committed by the vitamin and supplements industry. For those of you who watch CBC Marketplace, you might be accustomed to their modus operandi of exposing scandals, discovering fraud, and otherwise uncovering all manner of shocking things in which the world engages, replete with a narrative that doesn't distance itself too far from what you'd see in a tabloid.

As someone who has watched CBC Marketplace on a fairly regular basis, I can't help but wonder if their consistency in bringing “shocking news” to an audience who salivate for such a juicy bone is truly unbiased and retains journalistic integrity. After all, would a boring story that goes as you'd expect really generate such a huge audience as does CBC Marketplace?

Now truth be told, I actually somewhat agree with this episode that slams the very industry that I live and breathe. To have a major TV program like CIBC waltz in to your place of work with their cameras rolling, telling you that they're about to show the world what a mess your business is in might immediately be interpreted as an offensive assault; and I would agree. But is there any truth to their claims of widespread abuse of rules and regulations within the industry? As someone who is probably more objective (to a fault sometimes) than he should be, and has eat, breathed, and slept in the industry for nearly 15 years, I feel as though I might be able to address some of these concerns if you care to read about them. Let's try to attempt to address the biggest elephants in the room.

Question #1
Many supplements failed to meet label claims when we used our own testing to verify them. In the first independent lab testing of its kind in Canada, Marketplace tested popular vitamins and supplements to see if the label claims were true. We found significant quality control issues.

Answer: First, CBC Marketplace sure has nerve to make the claim that they are the first to test supplements. What CBC Marketplace has failed to tell you, is that since 2006; an arm of Health Canada called the NNHPD (Natural and Non-prescription Health Products Directorate) has been regulating natural health products which includes extensive testing. Our industry has been forced to jump through a number of expensive and time-consuming hoops; which includes in-depth sampling and testing of every lot produced. I've had the pleasure of visiting mulit-million dollar manufacturing facilities in BC, Utah, and Ontario and they are nothing less than impressive and thorough.

At the hands of Health Canada, I've witnessed manufacturers do everything from be forced to reformulate, be forced to remove ingredients, be forced to recall entire lot# of product due to issues with quality control, be forced to remodel entire manufacturing plants to incredibly strict standards, be forced to build and certify laboratory testing facilities on this side of the border, and on some occasions, be forced to pack up and leave the country altogether. In the year 2006 alone, I witnessed several BIG American companies pack up their things and go home.

I've seen small family manufacturers be forced out of work within the first year of the new regulations because they couldn't keep up with the insane costs of adhering to these regulations – some of the most strict regulations of natural health products in the world. The arrogance of CBC Marketplace to tell us that that the industry is lying to you and that these products are made in Joe's garage is a small insult to me, but a rather massive insult to the billions of dollars spent by manufacturers over the past decade to adhere to Health Canada's strict rules. Sure the rules aren't perfect, but unless you plan on moving to Australia, you won't find better regulations anywhere else in the world.

As for the findings that the contents of the supplements tested are far below the label claim, I have just two questions: Should we expect CBC Marketplace; a flock of journalists who strive to make shocking episodes each week really tell us that their own “independent research” is in some way better than those of the industry standard? Or are we to trust that Health Canada perfectly regulates a giant industry and that some manufacturers fly under their radar, cut corners, and are more interested in making a buck at the expense of quality. My answer to both of these questions is “no”.

Still, despite these regulations by Health Canada and the extreme changes it has made in our industry in the past 10 years, I continually witness repeat offenders violating the rules. Some online Canadian retailers sell all kinds of products that have not been regulated by Health Canada (online retailers seem to be more immune to the rules than brick and mortar stores). Some multi-level marketing companies routinely fly under the radar. Some sport nutrition companies break some of the oldest rules in the book and still find themselves being sold in health food stores. TV dramas like CBC Marketplace like to paint everyone with the same brush, and from a journalistic perspective is both biased and unfair.  Just like the manufacturers of the brands that we carry, we do our homework to ensure that you're getting what you pay for.   

Question #2:
CBC Marketplace states that Health Canada passes 90 percent of all product applications. How is this strict enforcement?

Answer: CBC Marketplace also revealed that approximately 90 percent of all product applications are approved by Health Canada. To me, this is hardly surprising, as manufacturers have spent nearly a decade ironing out the wrinkles to adhere and adjust to Canadian standards after failing repeatedly in the early days. Health Canada has set the rules for product contents and formulation, and it would be both risky and costly for a manufacturer to attempt to make a product that wouldn’t fit the blueprint. CBC Marketplace tries to imply that Health Canada gives everything a green light but this doesn’t explain why we’ve seen so many companies throw in the towel over the past 10 years, and explains perfectly why I don’t find product formulas surprising anymore. Health Canada makes the rules, and manufacturers follow them.

Question #3:
Some products make health claims that are not approved by Health Canada.

Answer: Absolutely true of the same companies that seem to dodge all manner of other rules as well. Occasionally, their product label will adhere to Health Canada's standards, but their marketing brochure will not.  Most reputable companies however, follow the rules set out by Health Canada quite diligently; and without getting into a case of over-generalization, I find that Canadian companies seem to fair better in this regard as they are more entrenched in the Health Canada ecosystem.  In my experience, it has been primarily American companies that have struggled with the rules; including health claims.  

As part of the NNHPD regulations, Health Canada permits the use of some health claims providing the correct dosage per serving of a specified ingredient is present. These claims are based upon available peer-reviewed evidence; often times supported by hundreds of scientific journals. The statement “there is no evidence to support the use of a natural health product approved by Health Canada” is strictly asinine in this sense. A simple herb such as Milk Thistle (for instance) makes claims based on a database utilizing over 750 scientific journal articles as a baseline. Of course, what constitutes evidence will vary greatly from person to person; sometimes even 750 articles supporting the use of a natural health product is still scoffed at by some people; another topic for another day I suppose. I'll attempt to refrain from further comments here.

Question #4:
CBC Marketplace stated that protein supplement manufacturers “spike” their proteins with nitrogen-based compounds such as free amino acids which look like protein in standard tests. “A company is using something that looks like protein, but is actually in most cases, cheaper”. CBC stated that if you want to get some good protein, eat a chicken breast instead which contains 48g of protein. Is this true?

Answer: Had this person been equipped with even the most basic qualifications to talk about protein, he would know that protein is made of free amino acids. Protein is made of amino acids, so making reference to amino acids as protein is technically accurate. Many companies actually use free-form amino acids and then list it on the ingredients label because it is a selling feature. Free form amino acids are also a desirable choice for many consumers because they can get more of some muscle-building amino acids such as BCAAs, and l-glutamine; and they are simpler to digest, faster to absorb and are more easily tolerated. Essentially CBC Marketplace was revealing a truth that the industry widely acknowledges, but in true CBC Marketplace fashion, tried to turn this into something scandalous, when in fact it is something that consumers actually want in their product. These are truths, made out to be lies by our friends at CBC Marketplace.

Having said all of this, I will say that the (ahem) sport nutrition sub-industry has developed a reputation within the industry as a little shady at times, depending on the company in question. Of all the health food manufacturers in Canada to whom I would exercise caution, the majority would include sport nutrition companies. I have my reasons and if you really would like to know more; ask me in person.  We carry Precision and PVL Naturals to name a few, because we trust their quality and we've seen their documentation.  

As for that chicken breast, it would have to be an 8 oz chicken breast (or nearly 1/2 pound) for that to be true. That's one heck of a chicken breast. Science!


CBC Marketplace (CBC in general actually) has been on a bit of a roll as of late. Like most news media, juicy, provocative and incendiary stories bring an audience like a mouse to Monterey Jack. As always, I advise my clients to keep their skeptic-hat on at all times and to be wary of scams and marketing mis-truths; it’s just a shame that CBC Marketplace has embraced this as their weekly modus operandi and neglect to balance both sides of the story.