With so many supplements on the market, quality standards, including accuracy and safety, can vary significantly among supplement manufacturers. Although dietary supplements are regulated in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), these regulations don’t define precise quality standards. (1) Whether they contain the wrong botanical species or are impersonating a genuine product, counterfeit supplements can cause illness and influence treatment plan success.
Keep reading below to learn more about how to tell if supplements are fake and key indicators to look out for.
What are fake supplements?
The FDA doesn’t evaluate dietary supplement labels and ingredients before they’re sold— meaning what’s on the label isn’t always what’s in the bottle. (2)(9) Ensuring that your patients take high-quality, genuine supplements is also important for their safety. Among other concerns, fake supplements may include harmful ingredients or contaminants, such as bacteria. (1)
Fake supplements can appear similar to genuine supplements at first glance but differ significantly in ingredients and quality. Fake supplements may have:
- Absent or improper active ingredients, such as ginseng leaves instead of roots (4)
- A chemical substance claiming to be a dietary supplement
- Impurities and filler ingredients not listed on the label
- Packaging that’s impersonating a reputable company (1)
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Dangers of fake supplements
Patients rely on practitioners, manufacturers, and retailers for health and supplement information. Fake dietary supplements may be convincingly marketed, have a price tag that attracts consumers, and even be sold at well-known retailers. Unfortunately, these big-box stores and e-commerce sites often don’t have rigorous quality standards for supplements. (2)(5)
This oversight may expose consumers to potentially harmful chemicals or even banned substances. Fake products may contain mislabeled ingredients, toxic doses, or impurities that can cause illness, such as bacteria or mold. (1) Taking fake health supplements may cause undesirable side effects, such as chest pain, fatigue, or a rash. They can also lead to more severe reactions, such as heart, kidney, or liver damage. (6)(8)(9)
Most patients don’t disclose their health supplement use during a medical visit unless specifically asked. (3) Consider inquiring about dietary supplement use on your intake form or when discussing current medications.
How to tell if supplements are fake
Identify fake supplements by performing a supplement authenticity check on any products purchased from an unknown or suspicious retail store. Examine any available resources, such as the website, capsule, or bottle.
1. Consider the retailer
Large stores and online retailers often have poorly defined quality standards for the supplements they sell. A study using immune supplement products purchased on Amazon found that many supplements were fake. Most of the products analyzed had inaccurate labels and misleading, non-FDA-approved claims. (2)
2. Examine the packaging
Another way to ensure that supplements are legitimate is to examine the Supplement Facts label and packaging. Look for mistakes, misspelled words, or unfamiliar fonts on the label—this could indicate the supplement is fake.
Good-quality supplements should have tamper-evident seals, lot numbers, expiration dates, and contact information for the brand. Third parties also certify many reputable products, which can confirm current good manufacturing practices and label claims, such as gluten-free. Newer products may also feature scannable QR codes that bring you directly to the brand’s website.
3. Inspect the supplement
Fake products often have missing or additional ingredients not listed on the Supplement Facts label. (2) Whether it’s a powder or capsule, examine the supplement for an abnormally pungent smell or irregular texture. A patient taking a counterfeit product may report that the supplement has an unusual smell or bad aftertaste.
4. Research the brand
A quick web search can further inform whether your patient is taking a genuine dietary supplement. Original supplements typically have a website with a clear brand story highlighting their ingredient sourcing and manufacturing practices. Contact and location information should also be present. Some original brand websites also list which reputable retailers carry their products.
After your authenticity check, if you believe you’ve found a fake product, report it to the FDA. It’s up to consumers to inform the FDA of a non-compliant brand or retailer so that they can take action. (7)
The bottom line
Fake products are, unfortunately, relatively common and may contain dangerous ingredients that cause adverse effects, such as chest pain. That’s why knowing how to tell if supplements are fake is important. Examining the supplement label, packaging, and retailer can help determine whether a supplement is fake or genuine. If you discover a fake supplement, report your findings to the FDA as soon as possible.
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- Brykman, M. C., Streusand Goldman, V., Sarma, N., Oketch-Rabah, H. A., Biswas, D., & Giancaspro, G. I. (2022). What should clinicians know about dietary supplement quality? AMA Journal of Ethics, 24(5), E382–E389.
- Crawford, C., Avula, B., Lindsey, A. T., Walter, A., Katragunta, K., Khan, I. A., & Deuster, P. A. (2022). Analysis of select dietary supplement products marketed to support or boost the immune system. JAMA Network Open, 5(8), e2226040.
- Guzman, J. R., Paterniti, D. A., Liu, Y., & Tarn, D. M. (2019). Factors related to disclosure and nondisclosure of dietary supplements in primary care, integrative medicine, and naturopathic medicine. Journal of Family Medicine and Disease Prevention, 5(4).
- Ichim, M. C., & de Boer, H. J. (2020). A review of authenticity and authentication of commercial Ginseng herbal medicines and food supplements. Frontiers in Pharmacology, 11, 612071.
- Starr, R. R. (2015). Too little, too late: Ineffective regulation of dietary supplements in the United States. American Journal of Public Health, 105(3), 478–485.
- Tucker, J., Fischer, T., Upjohn, L., Mazzera, D., & Kumar, M. (2018). Unapproved pharmaceutical ingredients included in dietary supplements associated with US Food and Drug Administration warnings. JAMA Network Open, 1(6), e183337.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2022a). FDA 101: Dietary supplements. FDA. https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/fda-101-dietary-supplements
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2022b). How to report a problem with dietary supplements. FDA. https://www.fda.gov/food/dietary-supplements/how-report-problem-dietary-supplements
- US Federal Trade Commission. (2011). Dietary supplements. Consumer Advice. https://consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0261-dietary-supplements