Using the Market to
Regulate an Industry
Despite the success of many quality manufacturers, the U.S. $70 billion dietary supplement industry has had a tainted reputation. Although hundreds of millions of people use their products every day and often swear by them, millions of people have had similarly negative experiences and call supplement products "expensive urine"—referring to the fact that some of these products just pass through the digestive system without having any effect. Additionally, some people have actually become ill after taking supplements and have called for supplements to be banned from the marketplace. Recent evidence is yielding proof that some of these skeptics and harbingers of disaster may be correct—but not for the reasons they might have suspected.
One-quarter of the dietary supplements (vitamins, minerals, and herbals) sold in the United States today have one or more of the following problems:
The products do not contain what they say they do on the label.
The products cannot properly release their ingredients due to poor formulation.
The products contain contaminants or undisclosed dangerous substances, in addition to what appears on their labels.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is supposed to monitor and regulate dietary supplements through the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DHSEA) of 1994. Unfortunately, due to woefully inadequate personnel and a limited budget, FDA regulations are rarely enforced when it comes to dietary supplements. This has left the door open for unscrupulous or simply ineffective supplement manufacturers to get away with outright fraud. But it has also opened the door for dedicated medical entrepreneurs, like Dr. Tod Cooperman, to make a significant contribution to wellness while striking out to make their own fortunes in the wellness industry.
Tod Cooperman started his company, ConsumerLab.com, in 1999, and it is already the leading business in the world testing multivitamins, multiminerals, and herbals for consumers.
ConsumerLab.com independently purchases most major brands within each category of supplements and then scientifically tests them to ensure that they contain the ingredients, and only the ingredients, stated on their labels.
ConsumerLab.com provides consumers a wealth of information about each category of supplements, rating the quality of specific products and providing an overview of what is known about the safety and efficacy of the ingredients.
Tod Cooperman didn't start out to become the consumer watchdog for dietary supplements—or even a businessperson or an entrepreneur. He was born in Flushing, New York, and grew up on Long Island. On graduating from public high school he was accepted directly into the prestigious six-year BA/MD program at Boston University School of Medicine. By the time he received his MD at age 24, he found the practice of medicine to be somewhat "cookbookish," and hoped he could find a way to make a greater contribution to society.
While in medical school, he worked one summer at an investment bank in New York, evaluating start-up healthcare companies, where he watched stockbrokers hawk biotechnology stocks with no scientific basis to unsuspecting investors. He worked another summer in the Office of Technology Transfer at the University of Pennsylvania, bringing new medical technology from the laboratory to the marketplace, an experience that landed him his first job after graduation: working for the biotechnology division of medical giant Bristol-Myers. Between 1987 and 1993 he worked with Bristol-Myers and other new medical technology firms until he realized an important point:
What patients needed most wasn't more new technology, but the ability to make intelligent choices between the dizzying array of competing health plans and new medical technology that was already on the market.
In 1994 Cooperman started CareData Reports, which rated health plans and other HMOs solely on the basis of consumer satisfaction. CareData.com expanded into evaluating pharmacy benefits, dental benefits, and vision care. Cooperman found he liked being an entrepreneur and providing consumers with information that they could act on in managing their health—particularly on a preventive basis. In 1997 he sold CareData.com (which later became part of J.D. Power and Associates) and remained with the company until 1999, when he realized that consumers had an even greater need for information about dietary supplements.
One of his first actions when starting ConsumerLab.com was to hire one of the world's leading experts on dietary supplements, Dr. William Obermeyer, who was then working for the FDA. Obermeyer had already made his mark in nine years at the FDA identifying severe contamination in supplements, and he was ready to bring his expertise to the aid of consumers—helping them make decisions about what to take and what not to take. In general, the FDA takes action only in cases where there is an extreme health problem, rarely commenting on manufacturing quality or labeling accuracy of products.
To date, ConsumerLab.com has tested 1600 different products in 50 categories, representing about 95 percent of all supplements sold in the United States. According to Cooperman, "More than one quarter of the products we have tested have failed, and this number has been as high as 60 percent for some categories." They also test popular fortified foods like Tropicana calcium-enriched orange juice, energy bars, and fortified waters.
Products are tested for the following criteria:
Identity and potency. Does the product meet recognized standards of quality, and does the label accurately reflect what is in the product?
Purity. Is the product free of contaminants?
Bioavailability. Can the product release its contents for use by the body?
Ingredient quality. Does the product (particularly herbal supplements) have the same phytochemicals shown to work in clinical studies?
Examples of products that pass are posted for free on the company's web site www.ConsumerLab.com. Subscribers can get complete listings of every product that passed or failed among those selected for testing. ConsumerLab.com also publishes its reports as a book, ConsumerLab.com's Guide to Vitamins & Supplements: What's really in the bottle?
ConsumerLab.com launched its subscription program in February 2001 and had 11,000 paid subscribers by August of that year—plus more than 1 million site visits. Today, ConsumerLab.com has nearly 30,000 paid subscribers. But most gratifying to Cooperman are the thousands of e-mails he gets from consumers thanking him for helping them choose the right supplement. Although you may not have tremendous sympathy for a woman choosing a vitamin-enriched antiaging cream that turns out to be plain petroleum jelly, think about the following:
The father who makes the informed decision to treat his enlarged prostate with saw palmetto only to find out too late that he was taking sugar pills
The mother who conscientiously gives her four-year-old daughter a daily vitamin that contains more than twice the tolerable level of vitamins for her age
The father who takes ginseng to boost his energy but chooses a brand that is contaminated with potentially carcinogenic pesticides
The woman who takes valerian to help her sleep at night but is actually taking a brand that contains no valerian
The mother whose depression affects her whole family who turns down Prozac in favor of Saint-John's-wort only to find out years later that she had purchased the wrong brand
To these, and hundreds of thousands of other wellness consumers, the importance of Cooperman's work in the wellness industry cannot be overstated. As Cooperman explained, "You wouldn't buy a car or a stock or bond without knowing how experts rate it. Why would you want to consume a supplement that has not been independently evaluated?"
The wellness industry is growing so fast that the government agencies that normally regulate medicines, food, and commerce cannot keep up. Private, dedicated entrepreneurs like Dr. Tod Cooperman, who are stepping in to serve the consumer's need for quality control, may eventually prove more effective for consumers than the traditional government agencies that currently regulate the sickness industry.
In 2003 Dr. Cooperman started another consumer-oriented company—PharmacyChecker.com—to help Americans identify the best online pharmacies in the U.S. and Canada. PharmacyChecker's Pharmacy Verification Program and Seal quickly became the industry standard.