Spend any time watching TV or scrolling through social media and you will inevitably see ads for pills, powders and medicines that promise to grow muscle, remove body fat, improve your focus and revitalize your youth.
Most of us have used them. In the latest count, the National Center for Health Statistics found that over 50% of all adults in America have used a supplement in the last 30 days. The center used data from 2017 and 2018, but recent surveys suggest that figure is closer to over 70%.
Globally, the nutritional supplement industry was said to be worth over $ 140 billion by 2020. In the United States alone, that figure is estimated to be around $ 36 billion – despite evidence that most of these supplements do not work.
How are products made with questionable benefits and expensive prices? Dietary supplements are not a new phenomenon. Their history dates back at least 150 years, and they have been able to thrive in the United States thanks to false promises, fanatical supporters, and weak rules.
Stimulating the appetite for alternatives
Given the bizarre claims that can adorn supplement labels, it is perhaps not surprising that some of the earliest supplement enthusiasts were religious figures. Their supplements were not pills, but food alternatives.
Sylvester Graham, born 1794, was an American Presbyterian minister who preached salvation through a vegetarian diet.
Part of Graham’s teaching focused on temperament and cereal foods. Graham followers made and traded Graham bread, crackers, and flour with the promise that these products would promote righteous life and eternal salvation.
While Graham did not formally approve of these products, his spiritual successor, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, was an avid supporter of his family’s new food line. A physician, inventor, and businessman involved in one, Kellogg ran his own health bathroom at Michigan — Battle Creek Sanitary — during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although he did not create corn flakes – this was his brother Will – Kellogg was responsible for marketing flour, protein substitutes, grains and peanut butter. Like Graham’s products, Kellogg’s foods were associated with improved health and virtue.
Graham crackers and granola can look relatively friendly compared to some health and wellness products sold today, such as detoxifying teas and vitamin-fortified waters. But they were nonetheless important in promoting the still powerful message that supported most of the supplements we see today: This product will improve your health and your life.
Fitness supplements become rage
When I teach this topic to students, I recount a discovery made by historians John Fair and Daniel Hall while they were researching the history of protein powders.
Sometime in the 1940s, American nutritionist Paul Bragg contacted barbell manufacturer Bob Hoffman.
At the time, Hoffman was making a small fortune selling his York Barbell training equipment throughout the United States. Bragg, meanwhile, was firmly established as a leading expert in alternative food. Feeling a potentially lucrative partnership, Bragg wrote to Hoffman with an idea.
In the letter, Bragg told Hoffman the fundamental flaw in his business in York: his products were stable. If anyone bought a barbell set in the 1930s, it is likely that they would still use it in the 1950s. Bragg recommended selling nutritional supplements, which would have to be replaced every two weeks or every month.
Hoffman decided to move into a partnership with Bragg, but he quickly recognized the potential of the idea. In the 1950s, nutritionist and bodybuilding coach Irving Johnson began selling protein supplements in Hoffman’s Strength & Health magazine. Made from soy, Johnson’s “Hi Protein” powder was a huge success.
Within a year, Hoffman stopped Johnson from his magazine and began selling his “Hi-Proteen” powder. Protein supplements, as an industry, increased in size and extent. Soy protein products were eventually replaced by milk protein powders in the 1960s. By the late 1990s there were several other derivatives, ranging from pea protein to collagen powders.
The size and scope of other offerings increased over time. Vitamin and mineral supplements became popular in the 1950s. Energy drinks and energy boosters like creatine began flying off the shelves in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Prohormones – which claimed to build muscle – were eventually banned. – were introduced in the early 2000s. Every decade, profits increased, as did creativity in product branding.
Strange promises were common. Vitamin manufacturers promised cancer-curing products, protein powders advertised steroid-like effects, and pre-workout supplements — often methamphetamine-filled supplements — provided unlimited energy.
Government authorities did little to stop them.
It was not for lack of effort. The supplement industry and federal authorities have long played a cat and mouse game.
When Hoffman and others began selling supplements, they were technically subject to Food and Drug Administration policies. But during the 1950s, the FDA was not well equipped to regulate dietary supplements. However, some of the manufacturers’ strange claims and unhygienic practices began to attract the attention of the regulatory body, which soon sought to gain more control.
By the 1960s, Hoffman – who routinely claimed that his products were gaining pounds of muscle fast – became an FDA target. The secret of his Hi-Proteen powder? A large mixing bowl in which he stirred the Hershey chocolate powder along with the soy protein powder using a paddle shovel.
Hoffman was regularly censored, but never stopped. During the 1960s and 1970s, the FDA regularly shut down horns with manufacturers for their poor production methods and incredible claims.
The problem was that the FDA was never able to fully regulate the industry.
From 1968 to 1970, Congress held several public hearings on FDA plans to fix the additions. Lawmakers, supplementary trade associations, manufacturers, and citizens discussed restrictions and prohibitions on certain products, such as illegally selling nutritional supplements that exceed 150% of the daily intake recommendations.
Public and private noises stopped such plans in their path. The FDA was forced to engage in light touch regulation. In 1975, a court decision allowed supplements to be advertised as natural. A year later, the Rogers Proxmire Act banned the FDA from imposing restrictions on the amounts of vitamins and minerals in supplements.
The FDA retained the right to pursue baseless or misleading claims, but it did little to slow down the industry. The number of products continued to grow.
Simply put, it became impossible to oversee what went into the products. This also explains why so many supplements include a note saying they are not approved or approved by the FDA.
In the early 1990s the FDA resumed its efforts to regulate the supplement industry. In particular, the agency wanted to increase its enforcement powers, while at the same time making it illegal to advertise therapeutic claims on additional labels. Once again, private lobbying and public protests softened the agency’s powers.
In 1994, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health Education Act, which completely changed the nutritional landscape. Supplements were now classified as foods, not medicines or food additives. By classifying supplements as foods, rather than medicines, the act reduced the burden of proof on the manufacturer’s claims.
Legislation was also extended as to which products could be classified as additives – and, therefore, not subject to FDA jurisdiction.
Today, it is the responsibility of manufacturers to self-regulate their potentially harmful products. This exposes manufacturers to lawsuits, but can be a lengthy and lengthy process for consumers. In fact, supplements are brought to market before they are fully tested. Thus, many products are sold despite containing banned substances.
A single promise wrapped in a pill
Since the mid-20th century, dietary supplements have been promoted in various ways within the United States. But acknowledging the differences in product, taste and price, they are generally sold on the basis of a single promise: This product will, in a way, improve your life.
Whether this is true or not for the individual product – some supplements, in fact, work, with creatine an example – has become problematic on a larger scale. Federal agencies in the US are constantly hampered by correct market surveillance. Private lobbying and public outrage over the government wanting to “take away your vitamins” have encouraged dangerous abuses and messages.
A 2018 study found 776 cases of unapproved pharmaceutical ingredients being added to supplements in the United States from 2007 to 2016. Many of these supplements were relatively harmless. But some ingredients – from steroid compounds to banned weight loss drugs – were not.
Add-ons can be very promising. But in reality, most of them are articles of faith.
Conor Heffernan is an Assistant Professor of Physical Education and Sports Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He wrote this for The Conversation.