Paying more for Less: The Pitfalls of Cheap Supplements

Posted by Tyler J. Arsenault B.Sc (Nutrition) on 2017 Nov 9th

In my experience, big-box stores (I dare not name names) target consumers with value-based pricing on supplements; vitamins, minerals, herbs and the like. When I happen to visit my local chain-store on the odd occasion I always make a habit of spending some time in the supplements section to see how our products stack up. The most astonishing observations is that nearly EVERYTHING is priced below $20.

My assumption is that $20 is a low barrier of entry for the average consumer. It’s a low risk to buy the product to try, and a vague understanding or product quality by the average consumer combined with the high potential for a placebo effect can provide great odds that the consumer will purchase the product again. It’s a brilliant strategy…for the company selling it to you

What isn’t apparent is product quality. In some cases these differences are quantifiable and visible on the label for the benefit of eyes that know what they’re looking for, and at other times it takes considerable knowledge of supplements to decode the subtle differences. I’m sure there are plenty of good things you can purchase for less than $20. We at Full Circle have A LOT of things less than even $10, but the definition of value is benefits divided by cost. If you get few benefits for the money you’re spending, you may think you’re getting value when in fact you are not.

So back to this $20 thing. There’s a lot of variables that go into the retail cost of a product. Quality ingredients usually cost more, and the more of any ingredient the more expensive the product will become. Companies who advertise their products heavily pass those costs on to the consumer. Then of course there are manufacturing, distribution and other types of costs. So what can you get for $20 or less?

I recently had a discussion with a customer who purchased a top-selling acidophilus product (more specifically a healthy bacteria-containing “probiotic” product) at WalMart who was a little taken aback by the product I was recommending to her at nearly 3 times the price of what she paid for hers. In her mind, acidophilus was acidophilus (potato potatoe) and ours was vastly overpriced. Our $35.99 probiotic was no match for her probiotic at $12.99 in terms of value…..or was it?

For arguments sake, let’s say the quality of ingredients in her $12.99 probiotic was just as good as the HMF (human-microflora) strains used in our professional product from Genestra; all of the adherence characteristics, enteric-coatings, natural pH and bile resistant abilities of both products are the same (they aren’t, but let’s say they are for simplicity). If I only compared the quantity of bacteria on the label it would take 10 capsules of her product to equal 1 capsule of ours. I went on to tell her that, “ your $12.99 product would have to cost $77.94 if it were to be on equal footing in terms of sheer quantity of bacteria. You’re paying 1/3rd of the price for something that is 1/10th as potent per capsule .” Needless to say, she was convinced and her digestion has been fantastic ever since.

To illustrate that this example isn’t isolated, I’ve taken the liberty of comparing two of our favourite probiotics, Genestra HMF Forte, and BioClinic Naturals Pro12, both of which are high-quality, high-potency professional brand products to 4 other budget brands found on Canadian shelves. With products like those from Genestra or BioClinic you’re able to take fewer capsules of a higher potency at a lower cost. That’s real value.

Brand HMF Forte BioClinic Pro12 Brand A Brand B Brand C Brand D
Cost $35.99 $24.99 $14.49 $21.99 $12.99 $18.99
Capsules 60 60 90 30 100 30
CFU per cap(billions) 10 12 3 3 1 9
Total CFU (billions) 600 720 270 90 100 270
Cost/100 billion CFU $5.99 $3.47 $5.36 $24.43 $12.99 $7.03

CFU: Colony Forming Unit. A single microorganism of beneficial colonizing bacteria that lends health benefits as opposed to transient or pathogenic bacteria which have limited or harmful effects.