By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/11/2007 10:59:52 AM ET 2007-04-11T14:59:52

If the bottle of supplements you bought to help ease arthritis pain hasn’t helped, the reason might be that the pills don’t contain the ingredients they’re supposed to.

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Of the 20 joint supplements marketed to people and their pets that were selected by ConsumerLab.com and tested by independent laboratories, 40 percent failed to contain what their labels promised.

All the problems popped up among products that claimed to contain chondroitin, a key — and pricey — ingredient. Of 11 such brands, eight came up short on the substance, which is purported to inhibit enzymes that break down the cartilage in joints.

For instance, Nature’s Plus Ultra Maximum Strength Chondroitin 600, which touts “highest quality” chondroitin, turned out to have no chondroitin at all.

Even pets are getting shorted. Nutri-Vet Nutritionals Hip & Joint Soft Chews, which is marketed for dogs, contained less than 1 percent of its claimed chondroitin and less than half the promised glucosamine, a substance thought to stimulate cartilage production.

This means that people are spending a lot of money on a product that won’t do anything, said Dr. Tod Cooperman, president of ConsumerLab.com, a Westchester, N.Y.-based company that independently evaluates health and nutrition products and periodically publishes reviews.

Cooperman says the findings are especially disturbing since there is some scientific evidence that the supplements containing chondroitin and glucosamine can indeed help arthritis sufferers.

When contacted by MSNBC.com, several of the manufacturers of these supplements questioned the validity of ConsumerLab.com’s results.

Other experts said they weren’t surprised to hear that a lab found discrepancies between what’s advertised on the label and what’s actually found in each pill.

“We’ve known about this problem for a long time,” said Dr. Wallace Sampson, editor of The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine and a clinical professor of medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine. “Dosing in these products can vary from 0 percent to 300 percent.”

No one's watching
Lack of monitoring is the big problem, said Dr. Joan Von Feldt, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

“These nutraceuticals aren’t monitored or regulated in the same way as prescription drugs are,” said Von Feldt, an arthritis specialist. “And this issue has been identified with a lot of these products. And it’s not just a problem with the dose of the therapeutic agent, but also with the possibility of contaminants.”

The types of products reviewed by ConsumerLab.com were supposed to contain either chondroitin, glucosamine, MSM or a combination of these ingredients. No problems were found among the products that contained just glucosamine or MSM. 

MSM is used to treat pain and inflammation, but its effectiveness hasn't been well established.

Glucosamine and chondroitin haven’t been conclusively proven to prevent joint deterioration, but studies have shown they may help ease pain in people with moderate to severe osteoarthritis, Von Feldt said.

Many people who use these types of supplements themselves or give them to their pets swear by them.

John Musumeci, 56, of Quinton, N.J., started taking supplements containing glucosamine and chondroitin after noticing they helped his dog. “When I saw what it did for my dog, I figured I ought to try it myself,” Musumeci explained. “My joints used to hurt when I got out of bed in the morning. They don’t anymore.”

For its report, ConsumerLab.com purchased a selection of popular joint supplements and sent them, without labels, to one of two independent laboratories to be tested.

If a product failed in testing at the first lab, they were sent along to the second one for verification of the negative results, Cooperman said.

Random product testing isn’t foolproof. For instance, because the labs tested several bottles from a particular lot item of each supplement, it’s not a given that products produced at different times would have the exact same contents. But detectable problems are a red flag.

Watchdog criticized
ConsumerLab.com has been criticized by supplement makers because in addition to these periodic reviews of products on the market, the company also runs a parallel voluntary certification program. Companies can pay for ConsumerLab.com's testing services and if the products meet standards — meaning the supplements contain what their labels' claim and aren't contaminated — they can receive a certification. Yet ConsumerLab.com does not publish the names of companies who have paid to go through their certification program but failed, Cooperman acknowledged.

While none of the pet products tested in ConsumerLab.com’s recent survey passed muster, several products that are part of the paid certification program were found to contain exactly what’s promised on the label.

Several of the human products plucked off store shelves did meet the claims on their labels though. These include TwinLab MaxiLife Glucosamine & Chondroitin Sulfate Formula and Walgreens Glucosamine 500 mg Chondroitin 400 mg Double Strength. ConsumerLab.com provided a sampling of its findings to MSNBC.com, but reserves the full list for subscribers to its Web site.

Among those that failed the testing were:

  • Karuna Chondroitin Sulfate, which claims “the optimum in purity, potency and reliability,” contained only half the labeled chondroitin.
  • Nature’s Plus Ultra Maximum Strength Chondroitin 600 had no detectable chondroitin.
  • Swanson Health Products’ Premium Brand Glucosamine & Chondroitin had only 8 percent of promised chondroitin.
  • Weil Glucosamine & Chondroitin contained the claimed ingredients but they didn’t break down quickly enough. That’s a problem, Cooperman says, because it will result in the supplement just passing through a person’s body without being absorbed.

Weil did not return calls to MSNBC.com, and no representative from either Karuna or Nature’s Plus was willing to discuss the results in the new report.

Kari Graber, quality assurance manager at Swanson Health Products Inc., took issue with ConsumerLab.com’s test procedures.

“We stand by the quality of our products,” Graber said. “We send all of our products out for independent testing and this product has passed repeatedly.

“I’m not sure if the method they’re using is appropriate for this product. It’s not the one our lab uses. It’s not widely accepted.”

It’s not uncommon for companies to point the finger at the test when they receive bad marks, said Scott Stanley, an associate professor at the University of California-Davis’ School of Medicine and Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System.

“From the standpoint of a person who’s been running a lab for a lot of years now, I’d say it’s typical for people to criticize the testing,” Stanley added. “But if you have a lab test multiple products and some turn out fine, it’s unlikely to be a problem with the analytical test. Besides, they used a very effective means of verification by sending the samples to a second lab.”

Also reviewed were two pet supplements:

  • Joint MAX Regular Strength, Now with Manganese, made by Pet Health Solutions, contained just 2.1 percent of the chondroitin advertised on its label, but did contain the proper amount of glucosamine.
  • Nutri-Vet Nutritionals Hip & Joint Soft Chews was found to be lacking in both ingredients with 47.2 percent of the advertised glucosamine and 0.7 percent of the chondroitin.

Nutri-Vet’s vice president for research and development, Phil Brown, said he was surprised by the results. “We test our product on a regular basis,” Brown said. “I’m not happy to hear this. We are taking this very seriously.”

After receiving calls from MSNBC.com to ask about Joint MAX, Pet Health Solutions issued a voluntary recall of the lot tested by ConsumerLab.com.

It was an older lot, said Bob Singh, president of the company. “We did a voluntary recall of the lot because of the apparent findings of ConsumerLab,” he added. “But we’re not worried about it at all.”

Singh also disputes the ConsumerLab.com findings. “Our manufacturer tested the raw materials and the result was totally consistent with what the label says,” he said.

Ultimately, it’s no surprise when products don’t include the supplements they’re supposed to contain, said Dan Hurley, author of an investigative book on the supplement industry called “Natural Causes: Death, Lies, and Politics in America's Vitamin and Herbal Supplement Industry.”

When it comes to supplements, “nobody is watching,” Hurley said. “It’s an insane situation. There are no government-mandated standards for manufacturing.”

Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney.

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