by Marion Nestle
Jan 9 2019

Supplements to improve memory: if only

The Government Accountability Office has just published a report on memory supplements.

Available data indicate that memory supplements constitute a small segment of the overall dietary supplement market, but their sales nearly doubled in value from 2006 to 2015, increasing from $353 million to $643 million. Consumers searching to prevent or treat age-related memory loss, including Alzheimer’s disease, have increasingly turned to dietary supplements for help.

What did the GAO do?

This report examines the extent to which selected memory supplements contained: (1) their stated ingredients at the quantities stated on their labels and specific adulterants, and (2) certain contaminants.

Uh oh.  Never mind whether memory supplements do any good (a dubious claim).  They don’t even contain what they claim to contain:

  • One product, marketed as Ginkgo biloba, did not contain that ingredient. Instead it contained an unknown substitute; as such the safety of the product is unknown.
  • The second product was marketed as a supplement that included Ginkgo biloba. It also contained an unknown substitute, instead of Ginkgo biloba.
  • The third product, marketed as a fish oil supplement, contained the stated ingredients.

Supplement products, you will recall, are essentially unregulated, by Congressional fiat (see the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994).

Since none of these supplements has been shown to improve memory, what’s in them only matters if it causes safety problems.  Fortunately, the study found contaminants to be a low levels.

When it comes to dietary supplements, caveat emptor.