A: There are a number of reasons a manufacturer might choose to include an ingredient in their supplement.
First, it’s not illegal or very closely regulated – according David Kessler, commissioner of the FDA when the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) was approved:
“The 1994 Dietary Supplement Act does not require that dietary supplements (defined broadly to include many substances, such as herbs and amino acids, that have no nutritive value) be shown to be safe or effective before they are marketed. The FDA does not scrutinize a dietary supplement before it enters the marketplace. The agency is permitted to restrict a substance if it poses a ‘significant and unreasonable risk’ under the conditions of use on the label or as commonly consumed…Congress has shown little interest in protecting consumers from the hazards of dietary supplements, let alone from the fraudulent claims that are made, since its members apparently believe that few of these products place people in real danger. Nor does the public understand how potentially dangerous these products can be.”
Other common reasons for including risky or unproven ingredients:
They’re hot – like anything, supplements have fads of their own, and by including the latest ‘hot’ ingredient, supplement makers can ride the buzz (pun intended).
It’s cheap – some ingredients may have little to no proven effect but are cheap to source and include in a supplement. To some consumers, more ingredients is better. Often, they’ll just include a tiny amount of the ingredient — just enough to claim it’s in there as part of a ‘proprietary blend’. If you don’t see a quantity or potency on the label, you should be looking for more information.
They work for a short time – some ingredients do have an immediate and noticeable effect, but then you’ll quickly develop a tolerance, requiring the whole supplement to be cycled in order to remain effective, or to avoid developing a dependency(!)
They sound good on a label.
Lastly, to quote Upton Sinclair, ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.’ It may be good intentions mixed with a little bit of willful ignorance, as it is with a lot of the world.
If you want to know more about the history of the issues surrounding the lack of regulation, safety standards, and oversights in the supplement and vitamin industry, we recommend the book Do You Believe In Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine by Paul A Offit, MD.