We’ve all been there. We’ve seen the adverts in magazines or on posters; we’ve seen the amazing sponsored athletes, and we’ve heard people on TV espouse the benefits, explaining why you’d be a fool to miss THIS opportunity. It’s tempting, isn’t it?
Yes, the supplement industry is one of the most successful in the world, which is funny, because it’s also one of the most corrupt and seedy industries there are. Companies will not think twice about taking a substance which will have absolutely no benefit to human beings, put it in capsules, fill a bottle, slap on a sticker filled with false promises and lies, and then place it on a shelf next to a £35 price tag.
It’s the equivalent of a car dealership selling a car with nothing under the bonnet and telling you it’ll do 0-60 in 2 seconds. You’d be furious, and demand your money back.
Strangely, though, the supplement industry appears to just get away with it. They will sell powders, pills and all kinds of different concoctions of ingredients, which have no hope of ever working, and which get us, the consumers, no further towards our goals.
And yet, the industry keeps growing and we keep buying. More than this, you try telling someone that maybe, just maybe, one of their favourite supplements is helping them shed pounds – but the kind that are found in a wallet rather than a love handle, and they get defensive.
It works for me!
Well no, no it doesn’t. Supplements are a great example of the placebo effect at work.
- They tell you that they will have an effect, meaning that you have an expectation.
- You buy them at a high price, meaning that you are now financially invested
- You are also emotionally invested, because if you don’t get any benefits it means that you have been stupid. Your pride is on the line
- You have to swallow a pill, or drink a strong-tasting liquid. Both of these are shown to amplify the perceived ‘seriousness’ of an intervention, heightening the placebo effect. (1)
Create an expectation, which someone believes, which gets them invested in it, and they’ll think they get the benefit they are expecting – almost every time. In fact you are often so invested in it that you will espouse the benefits of your new product regardless of whether it works or not.
This has all led to a market which is FLOODED with spurious rubbish, and this article aims to list as many as we can, supplements that don’t work. If you have any products that you’d like to add to this list, please let us know and we’ll add it and give credit to the first person that tips us off to the fact we missed something. All references to the research we reference are listed in the text in brackets, i.e. (1), and listed at the end.
Acai Berry Extract
Promoted as a miracle superfood packed so full of antioxidants that you would basically live forever, lose fat without trying and even fight off osteoarthritis, high cholesterol, erectile dysfunction and all kinds of ‘toxins’.
Now, while Acai berry is indeed rich in resveratrol which is the compound generally associated with red wine and various dark fruits that gets a lot of good press, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Resveratrol has been relatively well studied for it’s proposed benefits to longevity and overall health, and the research is inconclusive at best (2), but moreover if you DO buy that resveratrol may promote better health you get a good dose from wine, blueberries, plums and grape tomatoes which are far cheaper and, in my opinion, way more pleasant to eat than some capsules.
There is no evidence that Acai extract or the high dose resveratrol within it will help with fat loss (though it may impair your adaptations to exercise (3)) and ‘detoxification’ isn’t something that a supplement can help you with – more on this in a moment.
Special Fat Loss Teas
There are a few different iterations of this, so I’ll talk about the major ones.
First there are teas that promise to detoxify you such as FitTea, but honestly that isn’t really a thing. See, your body builds up toxins during a normal day due to a few environmental factors which are compounded if you live in a polluted area, drink unfiltered water or have mould in your house. We also produce toxins ourselves when we exercise, have illnesses, have physical injuries or suffer from a bug. To be clear, the word ‘toxin’ has a clear clinical definition, which is basically a poison which causes an immune reaction upon detection within your body, as it has the potential to cause serious harm.
FORTUNATELY, your body is pretty damn good at dealing with this stuff.
We have system called the lymphatic system which removes larger molecules from your blood, we have a liver and some kidneys which are able to deposit and ‘junk’ into your urine or faeces, and we are even able to exhale some smaller ‘toxins’ or swallow them and bathe them in hydrochloric acid found within your stomach. Yes, some things put more stress on your immune system than others, but a lot of cars put more stress on a bridge than a small amount of cars, in both cases the stress is still well within tolerable limits unless something catastrophic happens.
In other words, your body has you covered.
There is no solid evidence anywhere that any products will help this system do what it’s supposed to (4), beyond water which keeps you hydrated and other general ‘good lifestyle habits’ like exercising, sleeping and eating a good diet rich in fruit and vegetables.
‘But what if your detox system can’t do what it’s supposed to, doesn’t it need help?’
Yes, in the form of kidney dialysis or similar. If your detox system DOESN’T work you get exceedingly sick in a very short space of time. Tea isn’t going fix that.
Then we have weight loss teas, such as Chinese Feiyan tea or Bootea that promise rapid and effortless weight loss, which they DO in fact provide.
The former is a laxative, as it contains Cassia Seed (also known as Senna (5), the active ingredient in popular laxative, Senokot) which will result in malabsorption of food, because you more or less immediately ‘void’ anything you put in your mouth (sometimes somewhat explosively). This is a really unhealthy way to lose weight, as intentionally giving yourself diarrhoea can cause all sorts of issues for your gut, hydration status and overall wellbeing.
The latter is a diuretic (6), meaning that it makes you pee. A lot. This is great in that it’ll make the scale weight drop, but it’ll also make you prone to cramps, dehydration and exhaustion. Of course you also put all of the weight back on as soon as you rehydrate, and then we must remember that water weight loss isn’t fat loss…it’s water weight loss.
Finally, we have green tea – the fat loss wonder drink loved by Men’s Health magazine and every yoga instructor, ever. Green tea is renowned for its phenolic content, particularly flavonoids which are believed to aid well-being. Effectively, green tea is said to act as an antioxidant and there seems to be evidence to support this (7), but does the tea, or the supplemental extract form meaningfully affect weight loss?
Well, maybe, but there’s a couple issues. First, it’s really hard to tell whether the benefits of the tea or extracts is down to the tea magic, or simply because Green Tea actually has a fair bit of caffeine in it, which is well supported to aid in fat loss to a small degree (8). Then we also have the issue that fat loss ‘caused’ by green tea in research is generally not clinically significant (9), meaning that it’s barely present at all and you’d probably be better off looking a little closer at your diet and exercise approaches.
If you like green tea, that’s awesome, but it’s not going to help your fat loss much at all.
This is not, by the way, to say that herbal teas have no benefits. Some teas DO have a little evidence behind them to suggest they are at least neutral but potentially marginally beneficial. The catechins in the aforementioned Green tea can do some cool stuff, Holy Basil (tulsi tea) may improve immune response (10) and reduce anxiety (11) though evidence for the latter is far from conclusive and Chamomile tea has long been recognised for it’s sleep inducing effect, amongst a few other promising (if again, inconclusive as yet) properties (12).
So by all means drink various teas for their small health properties and for general enjoyment, but don’t hold out for anything more dramatic, save your money.
CLA showed a ton of promise when it first came to market. It’s a fat which is naturally occurring in beef and some dairy products, and owing to its effects on glucose metabolism it can help rats shed fat like nobody’s business.
Again, though, you’re not a rat – and the way that humans metabolise carbs and fats is dramatically different to our rodent friends.
Scale it up and the effects just aren’t there (16) and CLA basically does nothing whatsoever in terms of fat loss for humans. Moreover, there is a good chance that large doses of CLA for a significant period of time can negatively affect your insulin sensitivity, blood lipids and inflammatory markers – not good! Save your money and get some natural CLA in high quality beef and dairy products, much tastier.
Raspberry Ketones shot to popularity after being featured on the Dr.Oz TV show in the USA. In it, he claimed that these pills were a “miracle fat-burner in a bottle”.
It’s claimed that Raspberry Ketones increase your body’s ability to burn fatty acids as fuel, owing to their chemical structure. Raspberry Ketones (which aren’t actually derived from raspberries when used for supplements, nor do they have anything to do with low carb ketogenic dieting) have a very similar molecular structure to two compounds which show some small promise at potentially aiding the fat burning process, namely capsaicin (13) which is the thing that makes chilli’s hot, and synephrine (14), a stimulant.
Please note the words ‘small promise’ and ‘potentially’, there, by the way.
When tested in isolated cells in a lab, these seem to alter fat storage pathways a bit (15) , which could then theoretically lead to losing fat more easily, but here’s the snag:
There’s no evidence that it would do the same thing in living and breathing humans as it simply hasn’t been tested (and it’s pretty unlikely that it would, given that isolated cells and cells within an organism often behave differently), and it’s very important to note that the effects caused to the isolated cells are the same effects that a short jog would cause in a human being, and those looking to lose fat should probably be doing some kind of exercise anyway.
Ultimately, raspberry ketones almost certainly don’t work, and if they DO work, they are less effective than the stuff you should really be doing anyway (and the effects likely don’t stack up, so if you’re already exercising and eating well, you’ll get no extra benefits).
Of note, Dr.Oz has been taken to court over the claims he made about these supplements, and they are considered a ‘novel food’ so should not be sold over the counter in the UK, so buyer beware.
Arginine is an amino acid which, when in the bloodstream, dramatically increases your body’s levels of Nitric Oxide (17). This sounds like something you’d want in your car, but what it does is increase vasodilation – the ‘dilation’ or widening of your blood vessels.
This, they say, improves performance, recovery and ultimately, your ‘gainz’ owing to improved blood flow, potential cellular swelling and improved metabolite clearing. Now, when we see arginine administration in medical settings, this does indeed happen – but there’s a catch.
When a doctor administers arginine it increases vasodilation to help mediate the effects of high blood pressure (think of a hose, the wider the hose, the less pressure there is for a given amount of water). It’s really effective, but the doctor will administer the arginine INTRAVENOUSLY.
Turns out, when you swallow it, the effects just aren’t the same (18).
To increase Nitric Oxide you need to take orally bioavailable substances, such as the Nitrates found in beetroot and leafy greens (19,20), or Citrulline Malate (21). The reason you’ll usually find arginine in pre workout products? Well, it’s really cheap and you can sell the initial benefit of ‘getting a bigger pump’, when in fact there are products that are better at doing it, and do actually have a performance enhancing effect at the same time.
Most forms of Creatine
Creatine is awesome, but the human condition is that we see something great and immediately want to make it better (for some reason). In research, creatine monohydrate has been shown to saturate your muscle cells 100%, and thusly give you all the associated benefits (22).
In an effort to improve this, there are various other forms of creatine such as creatine ethyl ester or di-creatine malate amongst many, many others.
These are usually 2-3 times the price and promise to do the job ‘better’ than regular creatine, but let’s just think about this for a second.
Every study done showing the benefits of creatine used creatine monohydrate.
Creatine monohydrate saturates your muscles 100%; you can’t really get better than that.
h3>What exactly are we trying to improve?
Sure, some of these may saturate the muscle cells a little faster, but let’s face it, you can wait an extra week to get a 2-3% improvement in performance, if it costs you 20-30% of the price, can’t you?
Nope, when it comes down to brass tacks, there is no evidence at all that ‘fancy’ creatines do anything different to creatine monohydrate other than costing more. Stick to creatine monohydrate, it works.
Natural Testosterone Boosters
These are herbal products which claim to use non-steroidal means to increase your testosterone output. They do this by ‘maximising your natural production’ in some way or another.
This sounds pretty cool, but research has never actually come up with anything to support this in athletes. Tribulus, for example, has a fair amount of data to suggest that it improves sex drive and erectile function in rats and one paper showing a small improvement over placebo in humans (though this was not statistically significant) (23) which would suggest testosterone levels are POTENTIALLY increasing, but when this hypothesis is tested in athletes there is no increase in performance seen (24).
Then we have Maca, which is a very similar story. An improvement in libido, but in the absence of any effects on serum hormone levels (25).
And finally, we have D-Aspartic acid (DAA) which was the product showing the most promise, at least initially. A few years back there was all kinds of excitement in the supplement industry because a patent had been filed based upon a study indicating around a 40% increase in serum testosterone after DAA supplementation (though the actual figure was closer to 30) (26). Suddenly DAA was in everything and even some more educated folks were pricking up their ears.
Soon enough, however, more studies were done to re-test the hypothesis and, well, nothing happens (27).
After DAA came Ecdysteroids which are the sex hormones found in insects. These show a small amount of promise as they appear to act as anabolic agents within human muscle cells (28) and in rats (29), though the latter showed an anabolic effect for all tissues rather than just muscle mass, as Ecdysteroids appear to NOT affect testosterone, rather improve mRNA efficiency. Ultimately, a lot more research is needed (30) to determine efficacy in living, breathing humans so it’s probably best to ‘not’ bother just yet.
If you want to improve your natural sex hormone production, sleep some more and ensure good quality deep sleep, have more sex, make sure your diet is on point and that stress is low in all areas of your life, this will have the most benefit on your overall hormonal and health status.
Phosphatidic acid is a phospholipid, which are the fatty molecules found on the membranes of most human body cells. It’s also tipped to be important in cellular signalling, including being a player in the activation of signalling proteins including mTOR, which has a key role in muscle protein synthesis.
This same pathway is activated when you consume protein (specifically Leucine) or perform resistance exercise, and so it is hypothesised that doing either of these things whilst taking phosphatidic acid could augment this effect and thus, give you better gains.
One key study which is used to support this hypothesis took individuals who were resistance trained (at least 1 year in the gym already) and put them on an 8 week program with phosphatidic acid (PA) or a placebo (31).
In the end, the PA group gained more bench press and squat strength while also gaining more muscle mass – awesome!
The difference in bench press strength improvement was miniscule and the squat strength wasn’t much better either, and could potentially be explained by the fact that the PA group were way weaker to begin with. Add to this that the participants in the PA group ate slightly more and gained more weight (read, gained any weight, on average the Placebo group gained 0.1lbs during the whole process, so no wonder muscle gains weren’t impressive) and you see why one needs to read the researchers’ conclusions with a certain amount of scepticism.
Funny enough, the study was funded by the manufacturers, and the patent holders who invented the supplement helped with the study itself. I want to emphasise that this doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but it’s a bit of a red flag considering the disparity between the research results and the conclusions.
Oh, finally, soya lethicin is a really rich source of PA which is really, really cheap, so if you’re tempted – just go with that.
BCAA aka branched chain amino acids may be a controversial pick amongst many people. For some reason, the fact that BCAA’s are entirely unproven to help in muscle gain or recovery is brushed under the carpet while other unproven supplements are given a large amount of grief.
Let’s go over this a second.
There is NO evidence anywhere that BCAA supplementation helps improve muscle gains in the short or the long term, other than when BCAA is added in place of nothing. This is completely logical as subjects are being given protein rather than nothing, and protein is always going to be more anabolic around training than water is.
So, if you are consuming enough protein throughout the day, BCAA supplementation has no further effects – and you WILL be taking in enough BCAA if you are ingesting the amounts of protein usually recommended to athletes or active individuals from quality dietary protein sources (an argument could maybe made for vegan athletes, discussed below), but what about those taking them during a workout to improve performance acutely?
A few studies (32,33) looked at aerobic performance and BCAA supplementation. The results appear to be modest at best, if inconclusive, and only applicable to beginners. Then we have BCAA use for delaying fatigue which seems either no more effective than a iso-caloric carbohydrate drink (34) or a little bit beneficial for around half of the participants while being useless for the rest (35) without being able to reduce lactate build up (36). And finally, there’s the idea that BCAA may improve recovery or reduce post exercise soreness.
Well, even in massive doses (51g) they don’t appear to be better than placebo at masking fatigue (37) nor do they appear to reduce cortisol secretion (38), meaning that this is a big ‘nope’, too.
According to leading protein expert Dr. Stu Phillips of McMaster University:
The evidence on BCAAs is remarkably weak, and they are not anabolic. Bottom line, if you’re taking in adequate protein then BCAAs are a complete waste of money, in my opinion.
And that’s our opinion, too. If you want to increase muscle protein synthesis, eat enough protein, and if you want to attenuate fatigue during training, drink some carbs and train on a well structured program while getting a lot of daily sleep.
The only time we can see BCAA being beneficial, is if you are consuming a meal or a general diet which is low in leucine for some reason, where the addition of leucine has a pretty good chance of increasing post prandial muscle protein synthesis (39) i.e. with a vegan diet, but even then, most vegans are smart with their diet and food combining and get adequate protein needed for health, performance and recovery.
Glutamine is a conditionally essential amino acid, meaning that most of the time you get more than enough for your needs by synthesising it yourself, but sometimes you may need to take more on board. One big red flag when it comes to glutamine supplementation is the fact that even if you DO need to take more on board for your particular situation, it’s pretty high in most dietary sources of protein and REALLY high in all milk based protein powders – so you’re probably getting more than you need, even IF your needs are elevated.
It has been a staple in bodybuilding circles for YEARS, with such promising benefits as helping glycogen storage, improving recovery/reducing soreness, boosting muscle protein synthesis and increasing Growth Hormone production as well as helping with gut health.
None of these things happen; well, at least not in the way that we may be hoping that they do.
Now, glutamine DOES seem to have some benefit for critically ill patients. The time when Glutamine becomes essential is when someone is experiencing extreme trauma such is seen in an intensive care unit, where around 1/3 of patients will present a Glutamine deficiency (40) but this is hardly relevant for what we are trying to achieve in the context most take it in.
Your training session isn’t as hard as open surgery or as depleting as muscle wasting diseases, no matter how bad-ass you are.
When we look at the effects of glutamine supplementation on post workout muscle protein synthesis in healthy adults, we draw a big blank (41). Not only this, but it doesn’t seem to affect short term performance parameters (42) OR long-term body composition (43).
It does seem to increase growth hormone levels, to a small degree (44). This sounds awesome but there are some large caveats which must be addressed. The first of which is that growth hormone (GH) isn’t all that anabolic, even when taken in supra-physiological doses (45) (unless it’s combined with anabolic steroids, where it MAY have a benefit).
Sure, very large levels of GH may improve connective tissue health and have a small impact on fat metabolism, but to think that a tiny physiological increase is meaningful is unfortunately mistaken. As a final note, an intense training session can increase plasma GH levels by over 20 times (46), rendering supplementation for this reason somewhat pointless.
Glutamine and recovery?
The story goes that, because glutamine (the stuff you make yourself) is vital for immune cells, then supplementing with it will help immunity and thus help prevent overtraining from particularly heavy training cycles.
Again, though, glutamine is only ‘conditionally essential’ so you make all you need to serve immune function unless you put your body under massive stress.
Two a days in the gym isn’t massive stress – think severe burns or amputation.
Finally, what about gut health?
It is true that certain cells in your intestinal wall use glutamine as fuel, and this would suggest that glutamine can potentially help with gut health.
As mentioned, though, you produce as much as you’d ever need within your own system, so supplementing glutamine to help intestinal health is mistaken outside of SEVERE conditions such as Chrons Disease, where a small amount of inconsistent data seems to suggest that supplementing glutamine in this case may be worth a try (47).
And again – you get A LOT of glutamine from animal meats and protein powders. So even if you DID stress your system enough during training to require extra glutamine for whatever reason, supplementing is only likely to help if you don’t eat any protein.
Which I’d wager that you do.
DIM is a cool little molecule derived from vegetables in the brassica family – most notably broccoli and brussell sprouts. It’s promoted as being able to help modulate estrogen balance in the body and, well, it’s actually pretty good at this.
A small dose of DIM (around 100mg or so) has been found to modify the types of estrogens found in the systems of women with estrogen mediated cancers by increasing the conversion of a more potent form to a lesser active one, thus potentially slowing the cancer’s progression (48).
This is not very well tested, but the theory is that this effect will help people with ‘estrogen dominance’. This sounds great, and although we’re hugely sceptical (and would much rather see people improve their sleep, and generally improve their lifestyle to get to a healthy weight, all of which are very well supported to improve hormone profiles (49) ), there are two big caveats:
First - the beneficial range for DIM (as calculated for humans based on cells in a lab) is around 3-6mg/kg bodyweight (50). That’s somewhere in the range of 240-480mg for a typical adult male.
The amounts of DIM available in vegetables per 100g are in the 70-100mg range, with brussell sprouts having over 200mg per 100g (51). What this means is that the therapeutic dose is pretty damn easy to get by simply eating the good diet which should be your first port of call anyway (throwing in a few more portions of brussell sprouts).
The second caveat is the more important one – the chances are if you are reading this you are NOT unusually estrogen dominant. Sure, obese males may have issues but this is something which will be dealt with when you apply the lifestyle interventions that you should do anyway (exercise a little, eat better, lose weight). The majority of people who we see personally who believe they have issues with estrogen are females who gain fat around their hips and thighs, which is a typically given ‘symptom’ of estrogen dominance. This is, simply, a typical female fat storage pattern, and honestly the problem would lie in this NOT being the case.
The proposed symptoms of ‘estrogen dominance’ such as water retention, mood swings, libido problems and ‘difficulty gaining muscle’ are intentionally vague and open to interpretation. If you think you have issues with estrogen, speak to an endocrinologist because it’s a serious concern – otherwise, you’re probably A-OK, and if you want the extra benefits of DIM, learn how to roast your sprouts with bacon to make them taste amazing.
When it boils down to it, MOST supplements on the market these days are cleverly packaged promises. The supplement industry is really poorly regulated and you can pretty much bring anything to market without being checked up on.
Provided the wording on your bottles is cleverly done, you can also make a lot more promises than you’d think without getting into trouble.
So pay attention and stay on your guard. Assume without exception that everything available won’t work, and if something DOES pique your interest, make sure to do your reading before you hand over your hard earned cash.
The Awesome Supplements line was formulated with this in mind, and that’s why we provide a full PDF with each product outlining the relevant research and the mechanisms behind how things work. Don’t just take our word for it, though; make sure to hit up examine.com for free, impartial advice on supplementation.
The only one who can stop you being ripped off is you – it’s worth your time to be vigilant with the supplements you take.