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Another Voice: Be skeptical of astounding claims for supplements

By Jerrold Winter

While watching television the other night, I learned of a product called Prevagen. Its ingredient is a protein derived from jellyfish. The seller, Quincy Bioscience, tells us that Prevagen supplements a protein that diminishes with the aging process to provide healthier brain function, a sharper mind and clearer thinking. Should doubts persist, we are told that Prevagen has been “clinically proven to be effective.”

There are just two things wrong with this story. First, the structure of proteins and the facts of digestive physiology make nonsense of the claim that eating Prevagen will supplement proteins in our brains. All proteins are structured like strands of pearls in which each pearl corresponds to an amino acid and the string that connects one to another is a chemical link called a peptide bond. Our digestive enzymes, themselves proteins, break the bonds and release free amino acids. It is these that are absorbed from the gut. That is why insulin (a protein) and the newly approved cholesterol-lowering drugs Praluent and Repatha (also proteins) cannot be taken by mouth.

Prevagen can have no more influence on the proteins of the brain than can a Chicken McNugget.

But what about the statement that Prevagen has been proven to be effective? The evidence comes in the form of two studies paid for by Quincy Bioscience. No peer-reviewed study has ever been published in the medical literature.  

Permission for such advertisements comes from the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. The act defines a dietary supplement as a vitamin or mineral, an herb or botanical product, an amino acid or any combination of these. 

The Food and Drug Administration does not have the authority to approve advertisements for dietary supplements. In contrast with drugs, the FDA cannot require that a dietary supplement do what it claims to do or even that the product is safe to use. Only in the fine print or in a message flashing across the TV screen is the hand of the FDA visible: “Statements made on this advertisement have not been evaluated by the FDA …”   

There are many who believe that the primary goals of organized medicine are to enrich physicians and drug companies and to suppress natural cures. Those who promote such ideas say that it is your God-given right to prescribe treatment for yourself and that the supplement act is a triumph on behalf of consumer health freedom. I agree. It is about freedom.

In the words of Stephanie Mencimer, it is “freedom to serve as guinea pigs for a multibillion-dollar industry, much of which is built on a foundation of fraudulent claims.” Buyer beware.

Jerrold Winter, Ph.D., is professor of pharmacology and toxicology in the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences of the University at Buffalo and author of “Optimal Aging, A Guide to Your First 100 Years.”