Food supplements

The bad reputation of food supplements: justified or exaggerated?

It is a market that is experiencing great growth and whose number of products is increasing at a dizzying rate. Of course, the Internet is becoming a privileged playground for reaching the end consumer, but a merciless war is raging: between miraculous allegations on discussion forums and shocking documentaries from partisan “consumer associations”, it is the very reputation of these famous food supplements that is at stake. Our “markets and products” e-reputation unit takes a look at this Eldorado located halfway between health and food. Bottles of food supplements with tablets


With 1 in 4 French people consuming them regularly and a market that is expected to exceed 2 billion euros in 2019, it is fair to say that nutritional supplements are on a roll. In practice, a survey reveals that 2/3 of French people believe in their virtues and in their ability to prevent or slow down certain health problems. So what’s the real story? Is their bad press justified or is it just another manifestation of the ravages of the internet on the reputation of a product, a brand or a company? We have identified 3 main points used by detractors to damage the image of products and actors in this sector:

1. Miracle virtues and dubious health claims

This is the main argument against them: unlike medicines, food supplements do not need any marketing authorisation (MA). For medicines, this authorisation is issued in France by the National Agency for the Safety of Medicines and Health Products (ANSM). The process is, quite rightly, long and demanding, with a delivery time of almost 300 days. For food supplements, a simple declaration to the DGCCRF allows marketing. In addition to this, some investigative journalists have highlighted advertising that is, to say the least, tendentious, such as a product promising “74% more good humour and 34% fewer crying fits”. But today these arguments are no longer relevant as the market has been regulated at European level (by EFSA – the European Food Safety Authority) with a list of authorised health claims. Other claims are logically prohibited. On this point, we will allow ourselves to play devil’s advocate, since health claims authorised by EFSA on chewing gum have jumped out at us. It seems to us that this new regulation clearly benefits the big industrial lobbies that submit numerous questions and studies to make the health benefits of their products “legal”. It is also legitimate to ask whether certain health claims that should be authorised have not been refused due to a lack of studies or sufficient support. It should also be remembered that the market is not left unchecked since, in addition to the DGCCRF, the ANSES keeps an eye on it by issuing opinions concerning the harmlessness of the substances used in their composition and by setting up a nutrivigilance system.

2. The addition of controversial additives

Additifs alimentaires dans un bol Another black mark on the image of food supplements is their (artificial) appearance. Especially since certain consumer associations have highlighted the use of controversial substances such as TiO2 or titanium dioxide, suspected of being carcinogenic. Used as a food colouring agent to whiten or make coatings shiny, it is everywhere: cosmetics, confectionery, but also food supplements from well-known vitamin brands and even worse: in certain medicines! The use of E171 (TiO2) has been banned in food since 1 January 2020.

And that’s not all, to this we must add magnesium stearate (controversial and banned in the specifications of European organic channels), silica dioxide or E551, microcrystalline cellulose or E460, sweeteners (aspartame, sorbitol, maltitol …) whose exponential use has been debated for years, nanoparticles …

But are all manufacturers just profit-seeking industrialists ready to do anything to increase the attractiveness of their products (and their margins), even if it means endangering the health of their customers/consumers?

In principle, no. We can see the emergence of laboratories and manufacturers concerned about the quality of their products and the development of a “spontaneous” designation that is not a standard, has no regulations of its own, has no precise specifications, but is guided by a simple guideline: to remove all additives and artificial ingredients in order to move towards greater naturalness. In short, it’s a matter of course. And more and more laboratories are claiming this: pycs, nutri&co, nutripure…

Always in the same quality approach, beyond the composition of the product, it is also its origin (organic, ethically acceptable) or its packaging (biodegradable, phthalate-free, bisphenol-free).

3. Non-compliance with dosages

The last criticism that is often made concerns the dosage of active ingredients.

The first case is the use of an active ingredient by pure “advertising”, for example by indicating on the packaging “contains vitamin C”, whereas the dose contained, in relation to the recommended use, is derisory, of the order of 5% of the recommended daily intake. It is easy to see that the price/effectiveness ratio is much lower than the end consumer would expect and it is legitimate to conclude that the product is misleading.

Second case: on the other hand, some food supplements have been withdrawn from the market (years ago) because they contained too high a dose. At this level, the DGCCRF and ANSES monitor the supplements placed on the market. But there is another risk of overdosing when a food supplement is taken at the same time as a medicine. Undesirable effects or cumulative effects can occur, putting consumers’ health at risk.

As with previous criticisms, serious laboratories have put in place measures to prevent this: indications “do not exceed the recommended daily dose” as well as “take medical advice” and transparent and sufficiently legible display of the dosage on the label.

Moreover, it seems that food supplements “for slimming” have a higher proportion of fraud. This applies to health claims as well as to additives and dosages. This is confirmed by the market figures published by Synadiet with a drop in sales of slimming products, indicating consumer mistrust.

Our conclusion / opinion :

There are indeed criticisms concerning this market but the serious laboratories have put in place actions to respond to them:
  • Health claims are now framed and regulated (even if we can attribute some blame to them).
  • The market is not completely deregulated as consumer associations would have us believe: surveillance and sanctions by the DGCCRF, surveillance by the ANSES.
  • Emergence of a spontaneous “clean label” quality approach
  • Growing concern about consumer use with clear labelling of dosage, “do not exceed dose” and “seek medical advice

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