By Vin Kutty, Founder, InnovixLabs
It's SO EASY to buy stuff on Amazon.
Press of a button and - BAM - it's at your front door.
So, it's not surprising that so many of us order supplements from Amazon.
I do it!
But there's a catch: if you order an unknown brand, you have no guarantee that you are getting what you paid for.
The trusted familiar brands that we've known for decades have been slow to establish themselves on Amazon.
This created a business vacuum. Capitalism abhors a vacuum more than nature does.
And until very recently, there has been very little barrier to entry for sellers on Amazon. This means anyone can begin selling supplements on Amazon...and it's hard to tell the good stuff from bad.
Enter the No-Name Supplement Brands
Amazon has hundreds of supplement brands that are found nowhere else.
There are two types of new (aka no-name) supplement sellers on Amazon:
- The proverbial kids sitting in their mother's basement doing their best to make money
- The savvy entrepreneurial opportunist
There's one thing they both have in common: they are interested in making money on Amazon.
They don't care what they sell. Or how they make their money.
They just happen to be selling supplements at the moment. They could just as easily switch to cell phone cases or garden hoses.
The new brands are not run by nutritionists or passionate health nuts - this is a new thing in the supplement industry.
The Insanity of Apple Cider Vinegar Gummies
As I type this, most of the no-name brands are scrambling to get a few bottles of Apple Cider Vinegar gummies.
Why? Because it's what's hot on Amazon.
How hot, you ask...well, last month, the #1 Apple Cider Vinegar on Amazon sold $18 million worth of their gummies. I'm not kidding.
I'll swear to you on any holy book of your choice that Apple cider vinegar gummies don't do a damn thing because you can't get enough vinegar goodies into a gummy to make a difference.
When this fad is over, they'll be onto something else. A couple of years ago, they were selling something called Raspberry Ketones. But Raspberry ketones are no longer 'hot,' so they moved on to greener pastures.
My point is that there's money to be made. As long as that is the case, you'll see 'opportunists.'
What About Other Ingredients?
But I buy CoQ10 on Amazon and that's not a weight loss ingredient. It's something my cardiologist recommends...surely there can't be funny business going on with CoQ10, you say.
CoQ10 is boring, yes.
But CoQ10 is also expensive. And that's where the shadiness comes in.
In May 2020, NOW Foods conducted a little test that I absolutely loved.
First, a little about NOW Foods...they are not a no-name brand. They are established and trustworthy. They do a good job and I feel comfortable recommending them to friends and family. NOW Foods is a midwestern company and having grown up there, I feel its values are in keeping with being midwestern: no-nonsense, decent, just-the-facts-ma'am type business. There's nothing hip about them...you may not find a lot of Organic, Gluten-free, Fair Trade, Eco-friendly, Transparency stuff. They'll sell you decent quality stuff at the lowest price, even if the ingredient is from China, Angola, or Uzbekistan.
Like me, they must have been wondering how some of these new brands are selling CoQ10 (a very expensive material) at the prices being offered.
I've been tempted to buy some low-cost CoQ10 for my elderly parents, but...I didn't want to take a chance. So, I opt for tried-and-true NOW or NatureMade.
Here's What NOW Foods Found...
They tested 10 unnamed brands of CoQ10. Brand names were not disclosed.
- Three of the 10 brands contained close to what the labels claimed they did
- One of the 10 brands had slightly more than half the amount of CoQ10 claimed (219 mg of the stated 400 mg)
- Six brands had - are you sitting down? - at most, 16 mg and a few had virtually none. The pills were basically colored oils.
I had to sit down and read that a couple of times. Holy cow! There's some scammin' going on!
So the bogus brands were busted and tossed in jail, right? RIGHT?
The shady players are still selling their bogus pills on Amazon.
Click on this link (it'll take you to an Amazon CoQ10 page) and you will see at least half a dozen never-heard-of-em brands.
It's been almost a year and they're still there. Some of these have well over 3000 glowing reviews! Those products have not been removed from Amazon.
The CoQ10 trade association conducted a similar test with 50 brands and found the same thing. They attempted to contact the bad actors as a courtesy, but quite a few had no phone number or address available. They could not even be reached. The ones with addresses available ignored the heads up.
Hard to contact the company? That's a red flag.
The CoQ10 trade association concluded that there is 'little to no barrier to entry in online sales of supplements.' In other words, the trade organization had no law enforcement teeth and so were ignored by the fly-by-night players.
In Amazon's defense, they are starting to require public contact info for all sellers.
CoQ10 Shopping Pro tips:
1) Buy CoQ10 in oil-based softgels, not dry capsules. CoQ10 is a sticky substance and is best delivered using an oil or emulsion in a softgel.
2) Buy from established brands: NOW Foods, NatureMade, LifeExtension, Kirkland.
SAMe Products on Amazon
NOW Foods did the same with SAMe, an ingredient that many take for joint and mood health.
SAMe Test Results: it was worse than CoQ10. None had the stated label amount in the pills. Three had about half the claimed amount and the rest had nothing.
Alpha Lipoic Acid Products on Amazon
Alpha Lipoic Acid or ALA is used as an antioxidant and for blood sugar control.
ALA is also used as a weight loss aid - that's another red flag. Whenever the words 'weight loss' becomes attached to an ingredient, the fly-by-nights come scurrying out from under the fridge.
Like with CoQ10 and SAMe, NOW Foods found:
- Six of the 13 products had less than 75% of the amount stated on the label
- Two products had undetectable levels
- A couple had 8% and 5% of label claim
Phosphatidyl Serine Products on Amazon
Phosphatidyl serine or PS is a brain health supplement. It, like SAMe and CoQ10, is a very expensive ingredient.
This time, NOW Foods tested 43 (!) products purchased from Amazon.
The 43 products were chosen based on their 'too-good-to-be-true' prices.
You might think it's a good deal, but unless you're in the supplement industry, you won't know if a price is too good to be true.
- Only 2 of 43 products passed
- Two samples were spiked with cheap serine (not phosphatidyl serine) to fool testing equipment
- Thirty six failed
- Seventeen of the 36 had less than 10% of the label amount.
You can read a report with the names of a few of the brands here.
What's Amazon Doing About This?
It's been several months since these sellers were exposed as crooks. Yet, most of their products are still available for purchase.
While Amazon was initially silent, they eventually announced a plan to require two things from all supplement sellers:
- All supplement brand must submit a Certificate of Analysis (CoA) from an ISO/IEC 17025 accredited laboratory for each item they sell.
- A letter of guarantee from the brand stating their products meet Good Manufacturing Practices as listed in 21 CFR Part 111.
At first we all let out a sign of relief.
This will shake out the fly-by-nights and act as a regulatory barrier to entry, we thought.
Sure, it's a little extra paperwork, but we (and most established brands) already do this and are happy to provide this to Amazon. It doesn't require us to change our Quality Control & Assurance practices.
Then the reality started to sink in...fake Certificates of Analysis. And fake letters of guaranteed.
What are JIMPS and SOPPS?
All of a sudden, supplement companies that no one had heard of were calling testing labs and asking if they could help with JIMPS and SOPPS.
What the heck?! JIMPS? SOPPS?
Then it sunk in..they were talking about GMPs (Good Manufacturing Practices) and SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures).
That's like looking over at the car salesman while test driving a car and asking where the brake pedal is.
It's a common belief that the supplement industry is unregulated. Not true.
Given the examples above, I can understand why you might feel that way.
But do not confuse a lack of barrier to entry with lack of regulations.
There are plenty of rules and regulations with supplements. It's a joke around our office that if someone sneezes, we have to type up a Sneeze Report and two people sign off on it.
All of us at Innovix went thru extensive training on GMPs 15 years ago. We were trained on developing SOPs. We all have certificates from our training.
So, when these new Amazon-only brands call up testing labs and ask for help with basic stuff, it's time to get worried.
Some of the shady players will begin playing by the rules. But not all.
There will be fake Certificates of Analyses.
There will be fake Letters of Guarantee.
The FDA is only a part of it. There is a trend towards smaller and leaner governments with fewer regulations. As a result, the FDA is understaffed and underfunded.
The FDA will never get to all the bad actors. With their limited resources, they are going after the most gratuitous violators of the law - the ones with the bogus cancer cures, overnight weight loss or baldness fixes, sexual health, and body building gimmicks.
This problem didn't start with Amazon - criminal behavior has been around for ever - but the ease with which anonymous sellers can peddle their merchandise on Amazon has dramatically worsened the problem.
Therefore, I consider it an Amazon problem. And it requires an Amazon solution. Amazon must begin testing its seller's products at random. And make an example out of those that fail.
After all, Amazon sued and went after 1000+ fake review farms a few years ago. That was applauded. And worth it.
So, this should be easy for Amazon.
In the meantime, buy from brands you trust. The ones that pick up the phone and answer questions sincerely. The ones that reply to your emails. The ones that third-party test their products.
The vast majority of American supplements are made by honest and rigorous companies.
And virtually everyone I know in this industry consumes their own products. Why? Because they trust their own ingredients and quality.
I still trust the system. Protecting your health today requires a little more due diligence than it used to.
Stuff that's gotta be said:
Sometimes people display loud, public outrage at wrongdoings of others as compensation for real or imaginary shortcomings. A little low-hanging righteousness. That's not what we're doing with this piece. This article is not a pushup bra for an undersized conscience.
This is not meant to make us look good at the expense of our competitors...it's just us venting. Thanks for reading. And if it makes you a more informed consumer or helps you be healthier, fantastic!
Supplements may help, but supplements alone will not restore you to complete health. We think supplements are a small piece of the health puzzle. You cannot outrun a bad diet and inactivity with pills. Most of the heavy lifting involved in restoring your health will have to come from you in the form of healthy eating and lifestyle corrections. In these articles, we are merely sharing our excitement about nutritional science and doing our best to translate dense science into easy-to-read English. We geek out on nutrition science and we think you will too. We hope it makes you a more informed consumer. Our Legal Dept says the same thing in Legalese at the bottom of this page. Enjoy.