Concerns about truth of labelling of supplements and food products

A nutrition supplement may not always contain what you think it contains. Concerns about nutrition labelling of supplements and the quality control of supplements, including contamination with doping related substances have been discussed in the literature. A recent study confirmed that issues of quality control still persist (1). The study looked at CBD products. This blog is not about the effects of CBD and the evidence, it is about food regulation and good practice by manufacturers of food products. But the example I will use, is a recent study about CBD products and thus I will briefly explain what CBD is.


What is CBD?

Cannabis (Marijuana) is known for medicinal properties and there is science to back some (not all) of these claims up. But because Cannabis is now allowed for medicinal purposes via prescription from a qualified medical practitioner, there has been a rapid growth of the “medical marijuana” industry. As a result of this, there has also been a growing public interest into the health benefits of the non-psychotropic cannabinoid, CBD.


The pharmacological activity of cannabis can be traced back to a number of phytochemicals but the most potent are the phytocannabinoids and the most important of those are likely D9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the principal and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is the psychoactive component, CBD does not have such effects but is claimed to have other effects such as pain relieve, reduced anxiety, alleviate cancer related symptoms, prevent acne, heart health, neuroprotective properties and the list continues. We may go into the evidence behind these claims some other time, here we will focus on a recent study that showed that CBD products did not always contain the CBD that was promised on the label.

Several supplements contained only fillers (like rice powder) and none of the supplement at all.

In the literature we can find numerous reports of supplements that did not contain what the label promised (2, 3). In 2015 The new York State attorney had a number of herbal products analysed for their contents (Click here) (4). The supplements were purchased from 4 major outlets. It was found that 1 in 5 of these products did not contain what it said on the label or were adulterated. Several supplements contained only fillers (like rice powder) and none of the supplement at all.


New study on hemp derived CBD products

This recent study looked at hemp derived CBD products. The authors obtained a number of hemp-derived products from across the state of Mississippi. These products were then analysed for CBD content and compared the results of this analysis with the content claim on the label.

The results were shocking. Of the 25 products, 3 contained no measurable amount of phytocannabinoids. That is 12% of supplements that contained “nothing”. There was another 20% of products that did not list an amount on the label.

Of the products that had a label, and contained at least some CBD, there was large variation in the amounts of CBD the product contained and how this corresponded to the claims on the label.


In the end, only 2 out of 25 products purchased (8%) were within ±20% of label claim for CBD and not adulterated with either THC or synthetic cannabinoids.

For the 20 products that made a label claim for CBD, values for percent label claim ranged from as little as 0.06% to as much as 168%. The authors of the paper seemed to suggest that 20% deviation from the claim on the label seemed to be an acceptable range. In other words, if a product is within 20% of the claimed amount it was founds acceptable. This seems quite generous to me and many people would probably agree that if you are getting 20% less you should also get a 20% discount?

Well, only 3 products contained amounts that were within ±20% of what was claimed on the label. And it was found that one of those 3 products was adulterated! So, in the end, only 2 out of 25 products purchased (8%) were within ±20% of label claim for CBD and not adulterated with either THC or synthetic cannabinoids.

For the 20 products that made a label claim for CBD, values for percent label claim ranged from as little as 0.06% to as much as 168%

This really stresses again that there is a need for better regulation. If claims are made about the functionality of a product, these claims will relate to a certain dose of the ingredient. So, the claim should only be made if you can achieve this with amounts that are present in the product. If a product contains trace amounts, and you could never realistically achieve the intake needed to observe effects, why would you be allowed to make the claim? Of course, regulations are different in different countries, some are more strict than others. In the example of CBD. Ins ome countries it is prohibited to sell. In the US CBD is currently not considered a dietary supplement by the FDA; its regulatory status is currently under deliberation. But we see CBD products in supplement stores everywhere and certainly on the internet. If you buy it, you may get some CBD, you may not.

References

  1. Gurley BJ, Murphy TP, Gul W, Walker LA and ElSohly M. Content versus Label Claims in Cannabidiol (CBD)-Containing Products Obtained from Commercial Outlets in the State of Mississippi. J Dietary Supplements https://doi.org/10.1080/19390211.2020.1766634

  2. Gurley BJ, Gardner SF, Hubbard MA. 2000. Content versus label claims in ephedra-containing dietary supplements. Am J Health Syst Pharm. 57(10):963–969.

  3. Parasrampuria J, Schwartz K, Petesch R. 1998 Quality Control of Dehydroepiandrosterone Dietary Supplement Products. JAMA 280(18):1565.

  4. New York Attorney General Targets Supplements at Major Retailers. https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/03/new-york-attorney-general-targets-supplements-at-major-retailers/?_r=0


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