An article in the Wall Street Journal about the craze over resveratrol (requires subscription) based on a couple of mice studies should give supplement buyers pause.
More than a dozen supplements featuring resveratrol are sold in health-food stores and online. But dietary supplements are only lightly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and manufacturers don’t have to demonstrate efficacy in order to market a product.
Despite those caveats, several retailers report a large jump in sales of resveratrol supplements. Whole Foods Market Inc., the national health-foods chain, sold out of its resveratrol product at many stores earlier this month, though a spokeswoman declined to give sales figures.
Bill Sardi, founder and president of Resveratrol Partners LLC, which since 2003 has marketed online a supplement derived from giant knotweed, a Chinese plant, says, “I’m having to place rush orders from China because this thing is wild.” Mr. Sardi says his company sold as many boxes of its product, Longevinex, in the week after the first study appeared in the journal Nature as it did in the previous six months. Vitacost.com Inc., a large online retailer in Boynton Beach, Fla., says sales of its resveratrol supplements increased tenfold in that week. Source Naturals Inc., another supplement maker, says it has seen a “large jump” in sales of its resveratrol product.
This resveratrol feeding frenzy reminds me of a similar situation a few years back with St. John’s Wort. As I’m sure most of you know, St. John’s Wort is an herb that offers a mild anti-depressant effect to its takers. Although St. John’s Wort has been around forever, it was primarily known only to herbalists and other hard-core natural food types until several years ago when a spate of popular books came out touting its advantages. These books provoked a run on St. John’s Wort similar to the rush to buy resveratrol today.
During this St. John’s Wort buying mania I talked with a friend of mine who is an honest, reliable supplement manufacturer. He told me that in the previous year (and I don’t remember the actual numbers, but you’ll get the picture) 20 tons of St. John’s Wort had been sold in the United States. Problem was that only 12 tons had been harvested. So, people purchased 8 tons of who knows what thinking that it was St John’s Wort.
Since nutritional supplements aren’t regulated it is easy to see how an unscrupulous manufacturer receiving an onslaught of orders for St. John’s Wort (or any other regulated natural product in great demand) could decide to decrease the amount of a product in short supply and simply make up for the volume with filler. In fact, that’s exactly what happened.
I read an expose done by investigative reporters in Dallas, Texas in the midst of the St. John’s Wort frenzy that confirmed these suspicions. The reporter went around to multiple health and natural food stores and purchased supplements from different manufacturers and had them analyzed for content. In a substantial number of cases there was less active ingredient than claimed on the label and in at least one case there was none at all.
So, we’re now seeing this same kind of demand for resveratrol, a substance that can’t be mass produced overnight. And we still have no regulation of nutritional supplements. We’re in a replay of the St. John’s Wort situation of a few years back. Caveat Emptor!