Updated: March 30, 2016
Vitamins and dietary supplements is a C$1.4 billion industry in Canada and a $37 billion industry in the US. And although consumers are spending billions, whether they can trust the accuracy of supplement labels and claims is uncertain. To investigate issues related to supplement quality control, the Canadian investigative consumer television program, CBC Marketplace, contacted Labdoor to test a series of popular products and provide scientific expertise.
In addition to detailed chemical analyses, CBC Marketplace requested that products in this report be ranked according to active ingredient content per dollar, using itemized prices sourced from their own purchase receipts. Readers should note that rankings in this report differ from Labdoor’s usual rankings which rely on a detailed assessment of multiple product characteristics including label accuracy, heavy metals, inactive ingredients, nutritional data, and efficacy.
Labdoor tested the following protein products:
- Body Fortress Whey Protein
- CytoSport Muscle Milk
- GNC Lean Shake 25
- GNC Mass IV ProPerformance (available in stores)
- Magnum Nutraceuticals Quattro Protein Isolate Formula
Updated Report (see notes below)
This is an updated report of Labdoor’s protein testing. After measuring each of these products for actual protein content, Labdoor ranked them. Products that give consumers more protein for each dollar they spend are seated closer to the top of the list:
Because protein supplements is one of the fastest growing areas of the supplement industry, with sales having increased over 25% in the last 5 years, it’s obvious why companies are scrambling for a piece of the market. Given lenient guidelines for protein supplement regulation, protein spiking has appeared in recent years as a convenient way for some companies to exploit the system and bump up their profits.
In protein spiking, what should be protein in a product is partly substituted with cheaper nitrogen sources to take advantage of the fact that official testing methods don’t distinguish between the two. Some of these nitrogen sources include non-protein compounds like creatine and free amino acids that can cost less than C$1 for half a kilo (less than US$1 per pound). Even though certain free amino acids like branched-chain amino acids are considered to be the building blocks of proteins, they are not proteins themselves and do not have the same benefits as complete proteins.
Since widely used and internationally accepted methods of testing, known as the Kjeldahl and Dumas methods, only approximate protein content based on measured nitrogen, these filler compounds easily trick estimations to “think” there is more protein than there really is. In the US, accurate Kjeldahl numbers are enough for products to pass testing. Legal issues only arise if other parts of the product packaging make inaccurate claims on actual protein content. In Canada, Health Canada’s Natural Health Product Regulations (NHPR) states, “there is no single standard for testing protein content in protein supplements…as long as they result in accurate readings and support a high quality natural health product”.
Labdoor’s data relied on high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), which can identify actual amino acid sources of nitrogen, to decipher how much complete protein and free amino acids were in each protein product. Each of the 5 products above was subjected to this testing regimen as well as screens for dangerous heavy metals. All products were found to be free of heavy metal contaminants, and no protein spiking was detected.
Despite these favorable lab findings, label accuracy was still an issue for the selected protein products. CytoSport Muscle Milk, for example, measured a bound protein content that was 21.5% less than their label claim for protein. GNC Lean Shake 25 and Magnum Nutraceuticals Quattro Protein Isolate Formula also displayed low protein contents with 23.7% and 14.4% less protein than their label claims, respectively. In addition to having the greatest inaccuracy in its label claim for protein of the 5 products tested, GNC Lean Shake 25 also measured the highest sugar content by percentage, containing 3.48 g of sugar or 6.95% of sugar by weight. The other GNC product tested, GNC Mass IV ProPerformance displayed the best label accuracy; its measured bound protein content was only 0.3% less than its label claim for protein.
Clearly, product labels can be deceiving and the FDA’s limited oversight has not prevented inaccurate product labels from reaching the market. For consumers looking for products that will give them an honest return on their dollar, quality testing is essential, ideally even before the product reaches the market. For now, Labdoor hopes to bridge some of the gap by reporting to consumers what products actually contain once they’ve reached store shelves.
With respect to concerns about protein spiking, actions taken over similar issues in recent years extend some encouragement to consumers. When protein spiking with melamine was a major controversy in 2008, international regulatory bodies responded with significant quality control improvements for imported food products. When the supplement brand, Body Fortress, was subject to a US class action lawsuit in 2014 for protein spiking its whey protein product, they responded with a new formulation that showed no evidence of protein spiking in Labdoor’s tests. A 39 g serving size of Body Fortress Whey Protein only had 0.1% of free amino acid content. In both of these stories, accurate lab testing was critical to the investigation of whether products were spiked and the regulatory actions that followed. These events hasten expectations that with increased exposure to protein spiking, improvements in transparency and regulation will follow. Labdoor aims to continue its goal of monitoring this issue in its protein testing, reporting the most current findings to consumers, and promoting a culture of honesty and transparency in the supplement industry.
This is an updated report of Labdoor’s protein testing. Initial HPLC testing by Labdoor estimated GNC Lean Shake 25 to have 12.2 g of bound protein content, but GNC found contradicting results in its own commissioned testing. Labdoor sent additional samples to two third-party laboratories who worked together on a revised methodology. These were the reported bound protein measurements as a percentage of weight from the three labs:
In the end, Labdoor found that corrections to the original data were necessary. Back-to-back comparisons of data from the two third-party labs and GNC showed that data between the labs were not significantly different and in fact, the three labs agreed very closely on new data. Labdoor’s finalized data in the first table above reflect these changes.
Vitamin C Testing
Labdoor tested the following vitamin C products:
- Emergen-C Vitamin C – 1000mg
- Ester-C Immune Support – 1000mg
- GNC Vitamin C – 1000mg
- Jamieson Vitamin C – 1,000mg
- Nature’s Bounty Vitamin C – 1000mg
- Swiss Natural Vitamin C – 1000mg
- Treehouse Vitamin C Gummies – 125mg
This is an updated report of Labdoor’s vitamin C testing. Labdoor’s contracted laboratory initially tested vitamin C products using AOAC 967.22, the most commonly cited method for validating ascorbic acid content in foods and supplements. After considering the limitations of this method (explained below), Labdoor elected to validate the original data using a more sensitive chemical analysis method known as HPLC (high performance liquid chromatography) at two separate third-party labs. Discrepancies were discovered and original measurements were replaced with more accurate data listed below. Products that give consumers more ascorbic acid, the main active ingredient in vitamin C supplements, for each dollar they spend are seated closer to the top of the list:
In Labdoor’s analysis, 6 of 7 products measured more vitamin C content than what their labels claimed, averaging 3.1% more ascorbic acid than their label claims. Emergen-C Vitamin C was found to have the highest overage, measuring 24% more ascorbic acid than claimed. Their powdered drink product also had 5.42 g of sugar, or 61.59% of sugar by weight. Treehouse Vitamin C Gummies had 9.36% more ascorbic acid than claimed, and also contained 1.42 g of sugar or 56.31% of sugar by weight.
As previously stated, CBC Marketplace requested product rankings to be based on active ingredient content per dollar in which the product’s main ingredient is compared against that of other products. Since Emergen-C Vitamin C was ranked #6 out of the 7 tested Canadian vitamin C products based on this method, Pfizer, who owns Emergen-C, found it necessary to point out that Emergen-C is not a single vitamin tablet as the effervescent drink mix contains other vitamins and features such as flavorings.
Swiss Natural Vitamin C was the only product to measure less vitamin C than what their label claimed. The product had 940 mg of ascorbic acid compared to its label claim for 1000 mg, equivalent to a 6% difference.
Vitamin C Dosage and Health
Qualified testing of supplement label accuracy is essential for effective consumer decision-making. A lack of accuracy on a vitamin C label, for example, can easily translate to significant health effects, especially for those consumers who rely on accurate supplement labels to compensate for vitamin C deficiencies. These can include people who smoke, have certain malabsorption diseases, or have cancer.
Most people do get enough vitamin C to prevent deficiency-related diseases like scurvy. For this purpose, the US NIH has set RDAs (recommended dietary allowances) at 90mg per day for adult men and 75mg per day for adult women; in Canada, Health Canada recommends 60mg per day for people above 2 years of age. For proposed benefits of vitamin C beyond preventing scurvy like reducing risks for atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, pre-eclampsia, arthritis, and age-related macular degeneration, at least 500-1000mg must be taken regularly each day. While 6 of the 7 products tested measured vitamin C contents within or above this range, Treehouse Vitamin C Gummies with 137 mg of vitamin C per gummy may not be adequate for adults until a dosage of at least 3-4 gummies per day.
In addition to the health benefits listed above, vitamin C has perhaps more commonly been marketed as a curative or preventative tactic against the common cold. But for those who believe that bulk doses of 1000 mg of vitamin C can prevent the onset of colds, research evidence suggests that “megadosing” with vitamin C right when cold symptoms begin, does not actually work better than taking a placebo. Even to perhaps shorten the length of a cold by half a day, research shows that close to 1000mg of vitamin C must be taken regularly each day over several months.
Limitations of AOAC 967.22 Method for Vitamin C Testing
One limitation to the original AOAC 967.22 testing method is that its results are prone to error as vitamin C quickly degrades. Vitamin C can exist in two different forms – ascorbic acid and dehydroascorbic acid. Dehydroascorbic acid is the first in a series of compounds that appear when ascorbic acid degrades with exposure to oxygen and humidity, but after ingestion, it can be converted back to ascorbic acid and produce the same effects. After dehydroascorbic acid, ascorbic acid eventually degrades into inactive chemicals, and one scientific study suggests that ascorbic acid in products with higher sugar content degrades slower.
AOAC 967.22 is an analytical chemistry method that relies on manually oxidizing the vitamin C product and then deriving a measurement for vitamin C content based on fluorescence detection. It does not account for any portion of the product that has already been partially oxidized or the effects of added ingredients or different formulations that may affect vitamin C stability. In many cases, when measured after this oxidation process, the product will have lost some of its originally measureable vitamin C to degradation and the final measurement could be an underestimate of the vitamin C that was first present.
These were Labdoor’s initial results using AOAC 967.22, the FDA-approved method for regulating supplement quality testing:
As one can see, in comparison with Labdoor’s updated HPLC data, data gathered from using AOAC 967.22 significantly under-reports vitamin C content. AOAC 967.22’s limitations are a concern voiced by both lab testing facilities and supplement manufacturers alike. In light of this, Labdoor will continue to advocate for fair methods of testing and transparency to supplement consumers. Labdoor is at the forefront of developments in testing methodology and to the best of our ability, we will update our data whenever we find that a new method is better suited to our mission of providing the most accurate and thorough supplement testing reports possible.
Fish Oil Testing
Labdoor tested the following fish oil products:
- Adult Essentials Pure Source Omega-3 Gummies – 90mg
- Jamieson Omega-3 Complete – 1000mg
- Jamieson Omega Red Super Krill – 1000 mg
- Natural Factors Maximum Triple Strength RX Omega-3 – 900mg
- Nature’s Bounty Omega-3 – 1000mg
- Swiss Natural Omega-3 – 1000mg
- Treehouse Omega-3 Gummies – 90mg
Using official US-FDA and GOED industry standard methods for measuring fat content and freshness in fish oil supplements, Labdoor produced the following rankings list. Products that give consumers more omega-3 fatty acids for each dollar they spend are seated closer to the top of the list. If a product failed or had inconclusive findings during freshness testing, they were not ranked.
Fish oils are prone to oxidation, both in the bottle and in our bodies. Exposure to metal, light, and heat accelerates this process. Because they are so unstable, the omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil can become oxidized, less potent, and even rancid in the bottle before their expiration dates. Then, even if the fish oils stay unoxidized in the bottle, they can be oxidized in our bodies once ingested. Clinical research is presently trying to confirm whether all of this oxidized fish oil can increase our bodies’ levels of damaging oxidative stress. Labdoor found that 4 of the 7 tested products failed or nearly failed freshness testing from becoming too oxidized, and all of the products had much more omega-3 content than what was stated on labels.
As fish oils oxidize, fatty acids are replaced by a chemical mixture mainly made up of primary and secondary oxidation products. Freshness testing involves measuring these products, calculating total oxidation, and comparing the data to upper limits allowed by federal regulation. Exceeding upper limits for primary oxidation, secondary oxidation, or total oxidation means a product has failed.
Nature’s Bounty Omega-3 (exp. date: 4/17) and Treehouse Omega-3 Gummies (exp. date: 6/16) both failed freshness testing before their expiration dates. Both products had more than double the upper limit of 5meq/kg allowed for primary oxidation – results were 13.27meq/kg and 11.72meq/kg, respectively. Nature’s Bounty Omega-3 exceeded the upper limit for total oxidation as well – 37.74meq/kg compared to an upper limit of 26meq/kg.
Natural Factors Maximum Triple Strength RX Omega-3 (exp. date: 2/18) and Jamieson Omega Red Super Krill (exp. date: 11/17) nearly failed freshness testing and are likely to fail before their expiration dates. Natural Factors recorded a primary oxidation level of 4.8meq/kg, just below the 5meq/kg upper limit. Jamieson Omega Red Super Krill Oil recorded a secondary oxidation level of 18.79meq/kg, just below the 20meq/kg upper limit. Jamieson has challenged the validity of this finding though, citing limitations to the testing method described below.
Active Ingredient Testing
Tested products contained on average more than 2 times their label claims for omega-3 content. Treehouse Omega-3 Gummies had almost 7 times its label claim for omega-3’s. Adult Essentials Pure Source Omega-3 Gummies contained about 4 times its label claim. Natural Factors Maximum Triple Strength RX Omega-3 had 37% more omega-3’s than they claimed.
Weighing value in terms of both freshness and content per dollar, Swiss Natural Omega-3 and Jamieson Omega-3 Complete are the clear frontrunners. These two products both passed freshness testing and had the lowest oxidation values in the tested batch. Jamieson Omega-3 Complete was the most fresh, with a primary oxidation recording of 1.17meq/kg. Swiss Natural Omega-3 performed slightly worse at 1.84meq/kg, but it costs 9 times less than Jamieson Omega-3 for the same amount of omega-3’s.
Fish Oil Oxidation and Health
Some research has suggested that consuming too much fish oil or consuming it for too long, even if the oils are unoxidized, can lead to increased oxidative stress and be detrimental to organ function and lifespan. Add on the possibility of taking oxidized fatty acids in unfresh fish oils and this may cancel the benefits of taking fish oils altogether. Diseases commonly associated with oxidative stress include: atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease, especially in diabetic patients, and a variety of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s, and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Limitations of Fish Oil Testing
As with protein and Vitamin C, official testing methods are limited for fish oil too. The current GOED (Global Organization for EPA and DHA) methods used by the US FDA and Health Canada are inadequate for testing krill oil and fish oil gummy formulations.
With gummy formulations, omega-3 fatty acids must be extracted from the gelatin matrix before content and oxidation levels can be measured. However, GOED measurements don’t account for the extraction process, which can affect the chemical composition of the fatty acids and skew results.
For krill oil testing, the GOED method for testing secondary oxidation levels has limitations when it comes to products with certain colors. Krill oil contains a reddish pigment with color properties that overlap with the those measured in secondary oxidation products. Therefore, it’s possible for the red pigment in krill oil to slightly inflate secondary oxidation measurements. Critiques of this testing method have also been issued by the American Oil Chemists’ Society (AOCS), which establishes official methods for testing oils.
Sugar Content in Gummy Vitamins
Labdoor found that in 3 of the tested gummy vitamin products, sugar accounted for more than half the product’s weight. This is the corresponding data:
In early 2015, the World Health Organization released recommendations for a daily sugar allowance that called for, at most, 5% of daily calories to come from sugar. This equates to 37.5g of sugar for adult men and 25g of sugar for adult women. This should put sugar from gummy vitamins into perspective. At adult serving sizes, Treehouse Vitamin C Gummies exceeds an entire day’s worth of sugar allowance.
Moreover, standard (non-gummy) vitamins often contain several times more vitamin content than gummy vitamins and cost significantly less. For example, Treehouse Vitamin C Gummies has less than half the vitamin C per serving that Swiss Natural Vitamin C contains, but the vitamin C in Treehouse Vitamin C Gummies costs three times more. Labdoor’s data show that gummy vitamins cost more than standard vitamins for the same vitamin content and most of what consumers pay for is sugar.
This report highlights several issues pervasive in the supplement industry including inaccuracy in product labels, a lack of FDA oversight, and outdated official testing methods for products on the market today. Consumers rely on product labels and the testing that validates their accuracy to decide which products to buy, but many supplement companies are escaping standards either because official methods aren’t specific enough or they simply can’t be applied to certain product formulations. At Labdoor, we believe that updating regulatory protocols is the next step in improving the supplement marketplace for all parties involved.
Labdoor operates under a principle of transparency, and we hold supplement products and our own testing and ranking methods up to this standard. It’s why we test and report actual supplement content data to consumers, and why we are open to feedback and recommendations from manufacturers and consumers. We’ve consistently proven this. When we find that new methods of testing are more accurate and precise, we retest products at multiple accredited laboratories and update our data to reflect any changes. When we hear from consumers that testing a certain product, ingredient, or supplement category would be helpful for them, we count their vote. After all, consumer health and an industry’s reputation are at stake. We publish our data and reports with the highest sense of responsibility, and every report is our best-faith effort to provide the most accurate and truthful data possible.
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