[00:00] Introduction/Casper Mattresses
[03:28] About Shawn Wells
[15:53] About Supplement Industry
[21:49] How Companies Cut Corners
[36:40] Stacking Supplements
[41:48] How Supplements Are Made
[49:13] Blending Supplements
[52:01] Future of Supplements
[58:23] End of the Podcast
Ben: Hey, it’s Ben Greenfield. Before we jump into this show which covers the nitty-gritty underground world of the supplement industry, I want to tell you a quick story. July Fourth just happened, my mom came over for July Fourth, and she stayed overnight at my house. The next day she woke up, and she wanted to know what kind of mattress she had just slept on because she had such a great, comfortable night of sleep. No joke, I’m not making this up, and I told her what I am about to tell you, that she slept on a Casper mattress.
So it’s a new hybrid mattress. It combines latex foam, a premium latex foam with memory foam. So they describe themselves as an obsessively engineered mattress at a shockingly fair price. It’s got good sink, it’s got good bounce, something to do with, and I don’t know exactly how it works, combining the latex foam and the memory foam together. So the other cool thing is they’ve got a risk-free trial. They’ve got a risk-free return policy. You can try sleeping on it for a hundred days, free delivery, and painless returns. They’re made in America.
So anyways, most mattresses like this cost over fifteen hundred bucks, but you can get in Casper for about five hundred dollars, I believe for a twin size. Up to nine-fifty for a king size. I know it sounds expensive, but that’s actually a lot less expensive than what you get from a mattress of this quality and of this make and of this comfort. So compared to industry averages, it’s an outstanding price point, so here’s what you can do to get fifty bucks off any mattress purchase of any Casper mattress. You just go to casper.com/ben. That’s casper.com/ben, and use discount code “Ben” to get fifty bucks off any Casper mattress you would like. So have a great night sleep, but don’t go to bed yet because you’re about to listen in to today’s show. Enjoy.
In this episode of The Ben Greenfield Fitness Podcast:
“For example liquid vitamins and B-vitamins in particular are very volatile. So you have to often formulate with B-12, 300% over the label claim, so that it will meet two years from now. It’s level that you’re claiming on the label.” “I would definitely tell people to lean towards products that list the amount on the label clearly, so that you can look that up and see that is a dose that is used in studies.” “You know at the end of the day, ultimately a company like that does have responsibility because they didn’t do additional testing, and it caused an athlete their career.” “Everything I’ve learned is from being passionate of playing outside my box, working hard, continuing to learn and surrounding myself with great people.”
Ben: Hey folks, it’s Ben Greenfield here, and my guest in today’s podcast, Shawn Wells, has probably forgotten more about supplements than most of us will ever know. His brain contains an extremely unique blend of time spent in the science trenches combined in a formal education in the fields of things like performance nutrition and supplementation. So Shawn attended UNC Chapel Hill, where he got a Master’s Degree in Nutrition and a Minor in Exercise Science, but then he went on and became a registered dietitian, a certified sports nutritionist and a board member of the ISSN which is the International Society of Sports Nutrition which I also happen to be a member of. So Shawn is the CEO of Zone Halo Research which is a consulting group for supplement formulations. He’s also the Chief Scientific Officer for the supplement company Biotrust, and he has a ton of extensive experience in formulating supplements for big companies. Probably some companies who have supplements that you’ve tried in the past few years.
So he really is distinguished as an expert in sports nutrition and supplementation, and today, we’re going to get into the nitty-gritty underground world of everything from supplement ingredients to sports nutrition, franked fuels to looking out through our legally laced compounds in your supplements to all sorts of things that you need to be aware of, and as you listen in, if you want to visit the show notes, I will put them all up for you along with handy dandy links over at bengreenfieldfitness.com/supplementscience. That’s bengreenfieldfitness.com/supplementscience if you can manage to spell that all out. So Shawn, thanks for coming on the show, man.
Shawn: Thanks for having me on the show, I’m excited to be here.
Ben: So I’m curious how a guy like you goes from basically exercise science and sports nutrition at a university level to being a clinical dietitian to all of a sudden, being in the thick of the supplement industry. How’d that happen?
Shawn: Well going from Chief Clinical Dietitian to the supplement industry, I had to work two jobs essentially. I’m sure you know what it takes to be entrepreneurial. All my weekends, holidays, evenings, vacations were spent doing write-ups, articles, marketing, sourcing formulas, learning regulatory, looking up positions in the industry, networking, networking, networking. It’s just part of what you do. Every business card I got, I followed up on. Do you know Eric Thomas, the hip hop preacher?
Ben: The hip hop preacher? No.
Shawn: Yeah, he’s a motivational guy on YouTube. He’s really good, and he talks about when you want success as bad as you want to breathe, then you’ll be successful. And he tells these kids, he’s like you don’t really want it. You just kind of want it. You don’t want it more than a movie, a ball game, your cell phone or even sleep. If you want success quite often, you have to forgo sleep, he says. I know, I’ve had to forgo a lot of sleep. I’m sure you have as well. We have to use our blue lights.
Ben: I try and avoid it, but yeah. So we’re talking about before the show, just for those of you for a little opening kimono. Prior to the show, Shawn and I were talking a little bit about this blue light, ear device that I had written an article about and how we’re both quite interested in blue light to mitigate loss of sleep or the issues that happen with circadian rhythms. But ultimately, Shawn, I try and avoid sleep loss, but I agree. When you want something bad, I remember nights getting home from a whole day of personal training until 10 p.m., then I’d be at the computer until 3 a.m. trying to figure out how to launch a website.
Shawn: That’s pursuing a dream, and you know I still am, and people think Ben Greenfield or Shawn Wells just happens, that it’s something that you stumble into or something that someone handed you, and it rarely is. So I really appreciate what you’ve accomplished or what other people that have some of these amazing informational blogs and products like Dave of Bulletproof or Mark Sisson and what they’ve accomplished, and I really admire you guys. I love getting information from you guys as well. But if you want to go back to why I guess I got my Degree in Nutritional Biochemistry and my Master’s in Nutritional Biochemistry already in the first place, switching from a business school pedigree. That’s really two doctors, my mom and creatine. So my mom was always a big believer in supplements, and I was as well, and she gave me a passion for supplements at a young age. She was selling Shaklee. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that brand or remember them, but they’re European, but back in the late 70s, early 80s, and I remember she had like that tackle box back then with all the different things in it. The Vitamin-E, the Vitamin-D and the malt tea, and I believed in all that stuff back then, so my mom was kind of ahead of the curve.
And then when I was in college getting my business degree, I started taking creatine and seeing amazing results. It’s just come out, it was 1993, and then I was taking other supplements including protein, ECA and seeing these amazing results, and I just kept digging in, reading the magazines that were available. Muscle Media 2000 back then was pretty edgy and had a lot of information, reviews and things like that.
Ben: I remember Muscle Media. Coming from the views of Muscle Media, we’re working at the front desk of the gym.
Shawn: Yup. Dan and Bill Philips and Shawn Philips, all these guys. But one book that I found that just blew me away that I really believe was just way ahead of the curve was Dr. Michael Colgans book, “Optimum Sports Nutrition”, and he was training Olympians and pro athletes in Colorado, and he had all these GH releasing stacks and these different things in research, and he was getting blood work on these guys. Some of it may have since become less relevant to science, but still he was taking a scientific approach and doing stacks with athletes and trying to push their performance levels. And I thought this was really cool, and this is before, of course, there was sports nutrition degrees and all these things that are available now or even the ISSN which is great. I’m jealous of all that’s available to everyone now. I had to forage it back then, piece things together.
So actually I was really excited about all of this stuff, but I was getting my business degree in Information Systems and Marketing, a dual degree. And I went to a doctor, I was only twenty years old, and I told him that I was just going to simply do “business”, and it wasn’t that exciting to me. I guess I kind of said it nonchalantly, and he drew this lifeline out for me on a piece of paper, and he showed me. He’s like you’re twenty right now, and here’s this lifeline all the way through eighty let’s say, and he says you have a sixty year gap here, why not be happy? And no one told me that to that point, no one said go pursue this thing that you’re really passionate about. And since then, I’ve thought about it a lot like how profoundly impactful our words can be on making or breaking people’s dreams. There’s a great book and audio on “The Four Agreements” if you’ve ever looked at that, but it’s powerful. And on the flip side, when I went…
Ben: What’s it called, Four Ingredients?
Shawn: “The Four Agreements”
Shawn: You have pulled tech wisdom, it’s really, really good. Very spiritual, but very insightful. So I owe this guy really everything I’ve accomplished. Just a random guy, and I don’t even know his name unfortunately. I would definitely thank him, but on the flip side when I was going back to school to get classes to get into a master’s program, I wanted to go to Chapel Hill. This guidance counselor told me you’re a business student, not a science person. You can’t do twenty six hours of credits a semester of pure advance sciences with several lab classes per week. You’ll fail and fail miserably. And if I’d listened to him, he could have robbed me of my dream.
I ended up getting a 4.0 and getting into Chapel Hill, and I thought of his words every day. And they stuck with me, and it motivated me. But with other people, it could’ve knocked them down, so I definitely think about words and the people I put around me and the impact of people’s words on me and my impact on them, but I’ve since gone on to do studies, be a clinical dietitian, be a businessman actually. It actually served me well. And educator, and I’ve been blessed beyond belief, and I’ve worked with the guys that I used to read on these message boards like Bill Noel and Jose Antonio and Patrick Arnold, Rick Collins, Marv Heuer, Jacob Wilson, Hector Lopez, Tim Ziegenfuss. All these guys that are just amazing to me, and then since I’ve gotten into the industry, I’ve met even more, you know, guys like you. Guys like Mike Roberts, Paul Crib, Colin Wilborn, Dom D’Agostino, Jeff Foley, Lauren Bonac, Ben Pakulski, pro bodybuilder. Guys at bodybuilding.com like Peter Thornton, Ryan Deluca. It’s really amazing, solid and examine.
So it’s been a true blessing, and I got my RD and I got certified as a sports nutritionist, and I became somewhat of a guru, being on boards like bodybuilding.com and things like that. And I started my own company, Zone Halo Research and consulted for twenty or more companies over a period of time, and then in about 2011, Dymatize came knocking at my door and made a nice offer for me to be the director of R&D and help lead them to an acquisition with Post Cereals, and then I actually ended up getting acquired by Biotrust Nutrition, who’s a non-GMO, natural dietary supplement company. I came on as a VP of Research and Development and have since gone on to be Chief Scientific Officer over Compliance QC and R&D, and now I do just so many cool things. I still have Zone Halo Research, and I still have this job. It’s just great getting so many perspectives, working with so many people all over the world. So it’s been exciting, and like you said, I’m an editor on the JSSN and on the ISSN advisory board. I got to write chapters in textbooks, and do some studies. It’s been fun.
Ben: Yeah, it’s funny a lot of those folks that you mentioned, the sports nutrition and the strength conditioning industry is such a small world. I’ve had a lot of those folks on the podcast and have read in varying magazines and journals that I subscribe to their writing. I follow a lot of those same folks. I actually discovered you through the Examine Research Digest which I subscribe to, and you’ve mentioned Saul and those list of folks who’ve influenced you along the way, and I’ve found you through that and really wasn’t aware of the amount of research and work that you do, particularly in the supplement industry. And one thing that was in that article that I read, I’ll link to it for any of you who want to read the Examine Research Digest, you mentioned how you traveled the globe looking for the next great ingredient. So, not to put you on the spot, but is that just something sexy to say? Are you actually hopping on a plane, going to a place like India or a farm somewhere or someplace where you’re actually checking out these raw ingredients? How does that work?
Shawn: Yeah, going to India or China is definitely a part of what I do. Shanghai, Bangkok, I’ve been to a variety of places looking at raw ingredients or making deals, working on the supply chain aspects, but definitely a part of what I do. Like you said, India and China are probably the two biggest that we withdraw upon.
Ben: Yeah, so when you’re looking at ingredients or you’re even trying to differentiate a high quality supplement manufacturer or an ingredient source from a low quality one. What are the factors that you look for when you’re actually trying to decide whether something’s going to go into a bottle that winds up being sold to someone who’s going to swallow it?
Shawn: Yeah, that’s a great question. So you have to know who the people are that are associated with your company or that you’re working with, and then of course on the other side. You know I’ve been blessed to have great companies that I’ve worked with, with Dymatize and Biotrust. I’ve had people that have a ton of experience coming from vital cause, bodybuilding.com, the AS, Dymatize, Genesis Today, all these companies that are out there, and I’ve had great teams, and so I’m only as good as my team. I have certified food scientists, I have organic chemists, I have these director of compliance, a director of R&D, director of QC. I got experts around me.
I’m a Jack of All Trades, and I’ve definitely come up through the ranks, and I’ve learned a lot of things, but I definitely draw upon the expertise of those around me, and I think if you’re a good leader then you should definitely recognize that, that you’re not the best, that you should hire the best or work with the best and have experts around you, and I consider myself an expert in this area of supplements, but there’s even people that are more niched than I am, that I draw from. But I do know the regulations with the FDA, and I do look at the co-manufacturers and that’s they’re not just CGMP which a lot of them aren’t.
Ben: Now really quickly, just to interrupt you. Define co-manufacturer, and also for people who may not be familiar with the phrase CGMP.
Shawn: Sure. So co-manufacturer means a manufacturer that you’re working with versus, well at Dymatize, most of our products were actually in line, so like a vertical supply chain so we were making our own products on sight. Usually you work with co-manufacturers, and that’s probably the more ideal way of doing it because their expertise is manufacturing products, and your expertise is running a brand. And they’re two different things, and it can get messy when you’re trying to do both. It’s very difficult, and it definitely doubles your exposure to the FDA. So I found that it’s really best to not have that vertical supply chain. It may seem like a good idea in the industry to collapse those down, but really. Again, you want experts, and so I’ve worked with some of the best companies out there like in Arizona Nutrition or someone like that. That’s a really good co-manufacturer. That is CGMP which is good manufacturing practices. And also, they have great NSF audits.
Ben: That’s the National Sport Federation?
Shawn: I think it was actually originally the Sanitation Federation, but it actually is kind of moved on to not have an acronym according to them. And so now they do NSF for sport which is what I think you’re thinking about and different certifications for brands and for manufacturers.
And so we’re looking for, or I’m looking for gold standard co-manufacturers, and I would easily say 8 to 9 out of 10 aren’t meeting full FDA regulations. It’s a tough industry, you have to really do a lot of homework on your brands and really test them out. Look at testing and where they’re coming out ’cause it’s unfortunate that everyone’s cutting corners. It’s costly, obviously, to do things right, to test your raw ingredients, to test your finished goods. They can be very different as ingredients can interact with each other, and work out that whole process. Sometimes I’ve had to work with labs on testing methodology or standard for any ingredient. It didn’t even exist yet, so you got to create that. You got to work on that, and that’s very expensive. Most companies wouldn’t spend 80 grand or something to do that. They would just say well, here’s the input level, and it’s right.
Ben: That’s what amazed me. I did a podcast with the folks at the Thorne facilities when I tore their facilities in terms of the crazy amount of money spent simply on the spectrometers for analysis of raw ingredients, to see if it actually was on a molecular level, what it was purported to be. What are some ways though that a company would not do that? That would skirt the FDA guidelines? What are some of the tricks of the trade, so to speak?
Shawn: There’s a lot, there’s a lot of them. So one along the lines, what we were just talking about, is dry labbing. And by the way, Thorne is a great company. I have a lot of respect for them, but dry labbing is basically you may know it or you may not. Sometimes companies do know to use this specific lab for this reason, but they may not. I’d say the majority of the time they do, and they send it out to this company, and they get the results back that they want. And it’s called dry labbing because they’re not using a real lab. They’re just basically a guy and a laptop. Maybe a little bit more complex than that, but essentially they’re typing something up that says you meet the standard, sending it back to you and saying okay, within normal limit.
So we test out, everything’s good. Here’s our results if the FDA comes, and so amazingly they always are within limits, and they never have to reformulate, put something on hold.
They never have to do that, they never have to not sell product. Yeah, exactly, so that’s frustrating to see that out there again. It obviously saves a lot of money. They’re cheaper than other labs would be, and it’s a lot cheaper when you’re not quarantining product and saying we can’t sell this entire lot of products without reworking it or doing something like that.
Ben: Yeah, so just that I understand this, they’re literally not testing, they’re typing up results on a laptop, and they’re just assuming that the co-manufacturer isn’t actually going to test that ingredient or that supplement to have in it what they’re saying on the computer that it has in it?
Ben: And it’s that simple?
Shawn: It’s that simple.
Ben: That’s crazy, that’s scary.
Shawn: Yup, it’s very scary. It’s very scary, and even worse, the smaller companies aren’t even doing that. You know you kind of get what you paid for. If you get a company like Thorne that’s working with companies like Chromadex, Covance, Europhins, really good labs, and they’re working with the best co-manufacturers, then you’re going to get something that’s totally different than if you’re working with a low-end co-manufacturer that is just working on price, that is getting in the cheapest raw ingredients.
Here’s another one. Many of the raw ingredients that you’re looking at may use methods like, may use cheaper methods like titration or UV versus something like HPLC. So for example, fucoxanthin. There’s a five percent, and if we look by UV, it’s point-one percent. I’m sorry if we look by HPLC, it’s point-one percent. If we look by UV, it’s five percent. So they’ll send you this material at a very cheap price. Let’s say fifty bucks a kilo, and it’s five percent according to the documentation you’re getting, the COAs you’re getting from that ingredient supplier out of China. If you want something that’s five percent by HPLC, well then that’s a thousand, five thousand dollars. It’s micro-encapsulated because of stability. It actually has really bad stability. So you may get that material in, but quickly over months, it may be half, a third of a level that you bought it at. So you have to do work around the supply site, coming from places like China, India, or you may buy from a broker here domestically, but essentially it’s still coming from China, and you have to look at the methodology that they’re using. Be savvy on that, and of course look to third-party tests and use good labs with that regard, and also use good manufacturers here domestically that are meeting the best standards.
Ben: So a lab could use something like, and I remember all these machines from really, really boring days spent as an intern in a microbiology lab in the University of Idaho, but there are certain ways that are superior for testing the true composition of something, and what you’re saying is that some folks will test. Like they’re use titration or they’ll use UV or something like that. But because something like a high-performance liquid chromatography or an HPLC machine is so expensive and difficult to get your hands on, folks will test their compounds with a machine that isn’t quite as sensitive and might spit out that something has way, way more active ingredients in than it actually does.
Shawn: Exactly. Like with UV, like the chorotinoids, all look the same under a certain spectrum. So you’re not looking at an exact thing like a fucoxanthin or something like that, so it’s done intentionally. It’s tested out a variety of ways, and here’s how we get the highest result, and obviously a lot of people say well fifty dollars is a great deal. We can have a huge margin with this product.
Ben: So when you’re talking about stability and how you can test the stability of a compound, does that mean theoretically? Like if I get let’s say curcumin for example, and that has a certain amount of efficacy or a certain percentage of what the label claims that it has in it, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a month later or three months later, it’s still going to have that same amount in it?
Shawn: Yes, but…
Ben: In terms of shelf life?
Shawn: Right, a product is supposed to meet its shelf life which is usually two years. So when you formulate a product to that label claim, it’s supposed to meet that two years after. For example liquid vitamins and B-vitamins in particular are very volatile. So you have to often formulate with B-12, 300% over the label claim, so that it will meet two years from now. It’s level that you’re claiming on the label. And if someone is formulating this product and doesn’t really know stability, hasn’t done accelerated stability work and real time stability work in all their products and isn’t looking at that and putting those side by side like the FDA would request that you do, then you don’t really know what is in the product.
That’s why some of these products if they get tested, come up well short of their claims. ‘Cause a lot of these ingredients are potentially very volatile, and you might have to micro-encapsulate them or put in massive over ridges or take approaches like nitrogen fleshing or using a dark glass or something like that, that doesn’t have as much oxygen exposure, etcetera. So there’s a lot of steps that you might have to take like probiotics for example is just like vitamins, very volatile. But there’s many herbs and other compounds that are like that as well.
Ben: One phrase that I’ve seen through and around is this concept of “fairy-dusting”. Can you explain that to me?
Shawn: Yeah, it is very popular as a term. It definitely gets turned around in the industry, and luckily, I think there is a trend towards moving away from it. “Fairy-dusting” means that you basically list the most expensive or most exciting ingredients in your blend in this parenthetical blend, call it the “Mind-Muscle Connection” blend on your label. And you’ve got several ingredients listed out there. And the first of which, you have to list them into sending order of mass, so the first ingredient you might list is taurine or something that’s four dollars a kilo, and then you might also list acetyl L-carnitine. You might list all these other things that are much more expensive per kilo. And so someone’s looking at that, and they say oh, “it’s got what I wanted. It’s got this ingredient and that ingredient, I’m pretty excited.”
Meanwhile, something like acetyl L-carnitine or whatever the ingredient is could be many times more expensive, so how do they get around making an expensive product? They “fairy-dust”, so most of that mass of that blend is the cheap ingredient, and they put in one milligram, two milligrams of acetyl L-carnitine or whatever the ingredient is. So you’re getting cheated, you know, you see it on the label, but I would definitely tell people to lean towards products that list the amount on the label clearly, so that you can look that up and see that is a dose that is used in studies, in the form that they’re listing it in. It’s really important ’cause a lot of people aren’t using the right forms of the nutrient they’re not using, something that’s in a human study. In non-disease populations, they’re maybe not using the right method of administration. It could be in vitro in the study versus in vivo, not taken orally. There’ all kinds of ways to get around that.
Then one thing we didn’t even mention with testing is that there’s the other dark side. Sometimes there’s stuff in there that you don’t want in there. Certainly from an NSF standpoint or an informed choice standpoint, two bodies that test for banned ingredients. That’s important, and an athlete can lose their job over it.
Ben: Yeah. I mean that often what keeps me awake at night is just with so many smaller companies that may not have an NSF or an informed choice, it’s like urine testing, blood testing, etcetera. You just never know. I remember, and not to throw anybody under the bus because I know this was a long time ago, but I remember it was like six or seven years ago. Some chick won an Ironman triathlon, and I think she was taking Hammer Nutrition’s electrolyte capsules, and they wound up testing positive for Andro, and I know that Hammer had their piece to say about that as well, but ultimately it just turned out that she was stripped of her title based off of the fact that she was using something that you just kind of assume is safe but can wind up being laced.
Shawn: Yeah, and there’ been scenarios where companies have spiked products especially in the hardcore sports nutrition realm that are spiking the products with ingredients that aren’t listed on the label like you probably saw Driven Sports Crave for example, something like that.
Ben: No, what was that?
Shawn: It was a pre-workout that had an analog of PEA which is pretty close chemically to methamphetamine, so obviously it worked very well as a pre-workout in place of Jack3D which is popular with DMAA, and it ascended to the top spot in the sports nutritional world and was making a ton of money, but testing revealed it had something that wasn’t on the label, and of course there was some athletes that were testing positive for things, so it became very controversial as expected. You know there are companies that don’t know, and when you’re testing down to parts per billion, really, when you use NSF or informed choice, even these companies, let’s say the ingredients supplier in China. They’ve reacted ingredient, like where they’re synthesizing it, or they’re just blending and they didn’t do a deep cleanse in that blender. Three blends later, you can get parts per billion on that ingredient, and that’s probably what happened to someone like Hammer. I doubt that they’re adding Andro to their electrolytes.
Ben: No, I know they’re not. They’re good guys over there, but yeah. It’s kind of like leftover croutons in your salad bowl when you ask for something gluten-free in the restaurant. You know, celiac disease, right? It’s like people think it’s an empty salad bowl when in reality there are like parts per million of gluten-based croutons in your salad.
Shawn: Exactly, and so, you know at the end of the day, ultimately a company like that does have responsibility because they didn’t do additional testing, and it caused an athlete their career. And speaking of very serious of what repercussions are for athletes or even obviously people that get drug tested at their job or they’re a fireman or a policeman that’s been an expert witness on some cases where that’s been the case, and it’s very sad to see people lose their jobs over some of these things.
Ben: Yeah, have you ever heard of the company, LabDoor? I did a podcast with them, and they order supplements as a consumer would, right? Instead of asking the supplement company for an actual sample, they just purchase it from the company’s website like a consumer would, and when they get it, they test it then they grade it like A, B, C, D. Seems like a pretty cool third-party verification.
Shawn: It is, it is. I actually reached out to them, and I had some differences in the way they test and maybe some of their robustness of understanding of testing that I discussed with them, and they do want to make some, I guess take it another step as far as going to the next level and being more robust in their testing. But they’re excellent as far as the concept of the idea, similar to Consumer labs, but yeah. LabDoor is a project, I believe with Mark Cuban. Yeah, he’s actually a majority investor in it. Of course, he sees that importance for testing as well on the Dallas Mavericks.
Ben: So what about a company like LabDoor, really what most of them talked about has been referring to individual supplements, right? Like creatine for example. What do you do about stacks, like when you get to the point where you’re taking three different things together, or you’re trying to combine some kind of supplement that has multiple ingredients? In terms of approaching it from a formulation standpoint, how do you actually put a bunch of ingredients together with the conclusion that combining them all together, you’re going to achieve x effect? How does that actually work?
Shawn: That is complex, I’m glad that you brought that up because just putting ingredients together doesn’t necessarily equal all those things being additive. So formulation really should be based on, like I was saying before, healthy human data, not animal data, not disease data, definitely not in vitro data. I mean, in vitro might be a place to start, then you go to animal, then you go to human. Hopefully, you’re basing your ingredient research first off of healthy human data. And then you have to look at that specific form like I was talking about, the dose or the amount, the method of administration, whether it’s orally, topically, what have you. Is it a capsule, is it a tablet, is it a liquid? The frequency of the administration is actually really important and often overlooked like is it three times a day of five hundred milligrams? ‘Cause that could be a difference, if you have a product that’s maybe in the study is one dose at fifteen hundred milligrams, and then you give it three times a day at five hundred milligrams. It might not hit the same threshold and trigger the same mechanisms that the other would.
And so just for each ingredient, if you want to make claims. There needs to be several studies that you draw upon, and then for your finished product, you’re supposed to have one to two studies for the FDA to make strong claims. So I’ve put most of the products that I’ve worked on into the cube for university studies, so that we can make stronger claims because you don’t know whether your ingredients are going to interact, just like I was saying before, and testing even. You don’t know that you have to do validation work to say that on the other end, there’s going to be the same active because it may interact with some of the other ingredients in there. It may hide it, it may lower it, it may negatively interact, but same thing with how they work in your body.
Some of those ingredients may be counterproductive to each other. They may overlap on the same pathway, so they’re not necessarily all additive, and certainly if you try and make claims when you’re adding up numbers and extrapolating, that isn’t necessarily valid. So you need to do that work to make strong marketing claims about the efficacy of the product, and it’s good that there are places that we can all go to look for ingredient, a research at least with PubMed, or like you said examine.com or the ISSN or other places that you can look up ingredients, but I would definitely look if a product is saying we can do this, this and this, saying where’s the study? And hopefully, if it’s a more complex product, the more complex it is, the more you really need that research to be done, then hopefully they have that research in place and you can draw upon that.
Ben: Yeah, do you personally ever just grab three supplements that you know are efficacious, and just take them all at the same time and kind of use yourself as an n equals one, and keep your fingers crossed that things turn out okay? I mean, whether it’s a neurotropic blend or like a pre-workout stack or something like that?
Shawn: You know I do. I mean, it’s just the way we’re probably both built. We’re guinea pigs.
Ben: Because sometime there is nothing on PubMed, you know, that says whatever. If I combine, let’s say THC with alpha-brain with creatine. What’s going to happen? Obviously I can find research on individually, so I can get an idea of proper dosage safety, sourcing, et cetera. But once that’s all said and done, and you actually combine them and put them into your body, you really are just guinea pigging a stack on yourself. I just was curious if I’m the only person that does that.
No, that’s proof of concept, right? So that happens, and sometimes you can actually work with a university or a private research body to do something like that, where you do a small scale study essentially and something quick and dirty, and see if there’s proof of concept, and then you can take it further. It’s obviously a lot cheaper to do that. It’s kind of scaling up your study, but I often do that with myself. I’m the N equals one, and then I have a group of friends or coworkers take it, and then we take it from there. So yeah, that’s scaling up just like you’re saying. I’m always the guinea pig that starts it out for sure.
Ben: Now I’m curious, when it comes to actually making a supplement, like a lot of people don’t actually know what goes into making the actual finished product. How would you describe what you actually do in your day to day job and some of the considerations that have to be taken into account in terms of blending, encapsulation, putting the proper binders or fillers in, et cetera?
Shawn: Yeah, there is a lot to it, and I think just like you, the way I’ve learned all this stuff, you don’t get it from a degree. There’s no degree in supplements. Everything I’ve learned is from being passionate, playing outside my box, working hard, continuing to learn and, like I said before, surrounding myself with great people. Being passionate is just key, and I think that’s what drives us to continue learning. I never say that’s not my job, or it’s only from 9 to 5 am I this person. I’m that person 24 hours a day that’s always digging, always researching, always wanting to learn more, and it’s not just in supplements, but it’s even at the companies I worked at. I wanted to know more about marketing, finance, quality control, customer service, sale sourcing, et cetera. So once I had those pieces, then I became cross functional, and then I understood. You know that’s important at nearly any job you work. If you want a guy that designed your site for you, I’m sure bengreenfieldfitness.com, you have to probably do a lot of bench marking. You have to understand some of the aspects of website development, and do some work on your own so that it’s done right. You can help him understand what he needs to do, and that’s what I do. I’ve become pretty good at it. It’s learning all the other pieces, and luckily a business degree is certainly well. So I understand cost of goods sold which is cogs, so finance can approve the formula, and that it’s going to make x bottom lines, so it hits the profit margin that the company needs to succeed.
But there’s definitely very specific aspects of formulas like organoleptic which means like the flavor or the taste which is a huge, huge part of a product. Like a pre-workout, it can have the bet ingredients, but if you don’t understand food science with masking agents, acids, also acidulates, what flavors work with what acidulates like citric acid with citrus flavors. Let’s say what sweeteners work together. You can have a front end sweetener like fructose or back end sweetener like stevia, even if you were to use sucralose let’s say with stevia. You can actually use a lot less sucralose by using just a little bit of stevia because it helps on that back end, and so it’s really interesting all that science that goes into it. Looking at pH of the product, the acid driver that I was talking about. That really can affect the way of flavor pops if it’s raspberry or if it’s fruit punch or you know, fruit punch needs malic acid and citric acid in these different things.
So sometimes you might have a product, and you’re like that doesn’t taste like raspberry. And that’s why, they didn’t use the right levels of acids or sweeteners or the right maskers to make those things come out and really have that roundness on the front and back end. Solubility is a huge part of all of this. How many times have you seen the product doesn’t mix up? I have something that sits on top, or stuff that drops out. People give it negative reviews. So you need to do particle science studies and solubility studies before going in market, and I can think of one example, with whey protein for example, that you actually look at mesh size and there’s a level of 0.22 and there’s a level of 0.34, and we’re buying these proteins that were all instantized whey protein concentrate. And so it seems like a commodity. You buy WPC 80, it’s a commodity, right? But there’s a fifty percent difference in its mesh size and how it’s instantized, how the degree to which it’s instantized that can affect the mass of that particle, and so we would literally have tugs overflowing with fifty percent more volume but the same mass, the same weight.
How do you think that’s going to be in a scoop? You’re not getting as much protein in that scoop, right? You’re not going to be getting the same flavor or sweetener in that scoop.
Ben: So are you saying if the ingredient label says that say one scoop equals 30 grams of protein, you could be potentially using one scoop and getting like 15 grams?
Shawn: Absolutely, that’s what I’m saying. Although weight wise, mass wise, you are getting the correct amount, but a scoop is volume. It’s not weight, and it of course matter how you scoop and how packed in material is, and if you push the scoop to the side of the tub and those kind of things.
Ben: Right, it’ll be like scooping a pile of sand versus a pile of gravel.
Shawn: Exactly, yeah. Exactly, so there can be huge differences. That’s actually why American recipes are really bad versus European recipes. European recipes go by mass, American recipes go by volume.
Ben: Yeah, it’s such an interesting point.
Shawn: It’s true. It’s a goofy thing. I think that’s why we have so much variance in our recipes from person to person here ’cause you don’t know. If you buy something, I eat ketogenically, and we use a lot of almond flour, coconut flour and things like that, and there can be huge differences in the mesh size or the volume.
Ben: Oh yeah, absolutely. You could take a kitchen scale, and use a European measurement to measure out one gram of let’s say cornstarch, and you could use an American cookbook or a Western cookbook and measure out a teaspoon and have two completely different amounts of cornstarch. One based on mass and one on volume.
Shawn: Exactly, so what I would do with these proteins is we both get twenty scoops coming from the many different pubs and weight them all out, and see where they’re coming in at. And then you choose to label on your product that it’s x grams per scoop. You’ve validated that, that work needs to be done, and then you need to have a spec or specification on your protein that you’re buying that’s going into your formula, that is has x mesh size for volume so that you don’t have huge variance. And that’s going to affect how the product tastes, like I said. You’re not going to get the right flavor of sweetener as well, and the person’s going to get 40 servings instead of 30, and they’re going to get less protein like you said for a scoop than they think they’re getting, so it’s really goofy.
Ben: Now what about when something is blended? For example, I’m blending something up for my morning smoothie, and I know that they just use bigger blenders when making supplements. All hit a spot where there’s like, let’s say when I’ve put almond butter in, and it’s blended kind of inconsistently, and I’ll get a huge tablespoon of almond butter, like most of the almond butter that was supposed to be distributed throughout the entire smoothie in like one spoonful. Does that happen with supplements too? Could I be overdosing or getting way too much because I grabbed a scoopful of a supplement or got a capsule that got in the concentrated part that was in the blender?
Shawn: Absolutely. So again, as the ladder worked it has to be done there, and that’s why I say that it’s not as easy as a supplement company just buying some manufacturing equipment and just simply blending things up. That’s where a co-manufacturer, that’s all they do, that they understand how ingredients are hydroscopic, also called hydroscopic, moisture-loving, how they can clump and how you need to use certain excipients to condition those ingredients or desiccants in a bottle to make them flow better, to make them blend better, and then you need to understand the RPM of the blender, the fill of that blender. Just like a washer or a dryer, you don’t want to be too high or too low. It won’t clean or dry correctly, right?
So if you over-stuff your dryer, which this happens all the time. Hey, I want to get more efficiency, right? You want to push out more blends in less time. Well then, fill it up, fill it all the way to the top, but then it’s not going to blend and fold over correctly just like with your blender at home or your dryer, and you can also get these hot and cold spots. So you can have, when you think about a pre-workout, maybe it'[s supposed to be 300 milligrams caffeine per serving. But with a cold spot, it could be a hundred milligrams in that spot with your scoop, and at work, it could be 600 milligrams, and there would be a huge difference, and that’s why sometimes with some of these products, it may not be as trusted brands, coming from as high quality a source, but you can get that massive variance, and you’re saying why am I getting hot and cold sweats and feel dizzy one day and then feel nothing another? That’s what it is, these hot and cold spots and improper blending. You need to understand the RPMs, how long it’s going to blend and then do the testing on the other end to validate all that.
Ben: Interesting, it’s kind of scary. It definitely makes me want to do a lot of research before I put some into my body. Now you’re obviously out there, like we talked about, travelling around quite a bit, looking at different raw ingredients, supplement manufacturing facilities, research, etcetera. If you can put your finger on, kind of the pulse of the nutrition industry or the supplement industry and name one thing that you think is going to be kind of like the next big thing or the next new development that maybe hasn’t been researched enough yet, or that we’re going to see quite more of here in the future in nutrition or supplementation? What would be your top pick?
Shawn: Well I think nutrigenomics is the biggest thing. I think we’re going to see a lot of companies working with your genes, essentially like 23andMe or you know, those kind of things and drilling down into that and seeing where you might have genetic variation from you to the next person, and that explains why drugs worked a certain way with us, or nutrients work a certain way with us, or it might have interactions with each other, why certain exercises work or don’t work, you’re a non-responder or hyper-responder. We see that in studies, and a lot of that is genetically related. There’s a really interesting example of the active form of folic acid, Five-Methyltetrahydrofolate, as several enzymatic steps to go from folic acid to that active form, and many people have deficiency in those enzymatic steps at one point or many points. So maybe you don’t convert folic acid all the way, efficiently, or less than others might, and that’s an example. So you may need more, you may need a different form, and I think that’s going to become big in the future as we may have equipment that allows us to tail our formulations to certain people. I think we’ll see that in the future as definitely a huge area of development in supplements.
Ben: In your experience, is that scalable? So could I take my 23andMe results or my DNAFit results or my Genetic Genie exportation, whatever data I have from a gene standpoint and approach it? A company and they have some kind of a supplement custom design for me. Is that just something, let’s say the elite or the knowledgeable or folks who can afford it can do, or do you see people just being able to wander into, let’s say their naturopathic medical physician or their sports nutrition adviser, whatever, and just have something created for them, kind of like on the spot?
Shawn: Kind of like compounding?
Ben: Yeah, yeah. Almost like compounding on the spot.
Shawn: Yeah, yeah. I mean right now, it’s not. It’s definitely not feasible, but I do think in the future, I think we’re going to see more exposure to some of these genetic variations that are critical of like with our RDIs, like the vitamins and neutrals that I was talking about. They can create certain deficiencies. We’re definitely going to look at the gut microbiome and everything going on there. There’s so many implications for that in our health, and so I think that we’ll start exposing some of these variations, and it’ll just head down that path, and I think what seems improbable now and impossible now, will be probable in the near future. That we’ll have supplements, machines that will be able to really create bottles individually.
Ben: That’d be interesting. I guess that’ll be the way to do it, some kind of a machine that could automate the process and do so using a lot of the strategies that we talked about today, right? Like being able to actually identify the quality and the stability of the raw ingredients, and make something on the spot that matches up to you genetically, that’s actually an efficacious and true compound in terms of having in it what it says it has in it.
Shawn: Right, if you look at car manufacturing, and the computers are so advanced that they can change the spray color and the way it coats and the number of coats. You know, all that from car to car, and that would be the same thing with the supplement intention in the future. Obviously, it’d be expensive equipment, but I think we’ll get there.
Ben: Yeah, interesting. Well Shawn, this has been a fascinating discussion, and you as a listener, been listening in, I’ve taken some notes. I’ve put them all over at bengreenfieldfitness.com/supplementscience. Everything from the books like “Optimum Sports Nutrition” and “The Four Agreements” that Shawn talked about, to the Examine Research Digest, to this Biotrust company that Shawn works for now, to previous podcasts I’ve done on like behind the scenes of how a supplement is made and my interview with the folks at LabDoor. Just kind of all the resources that you need if you want to delve into this even more. So Shawn, thanks for coming on the show, and being so generous with your time.
Shawn: Yeah, no problem. I really enjoyed it, Ben. You’re a great resource for knowledge, and I’m glad to be a part of everything that you’re contributing, as it really is exciting how much information is out there now like I talked about. You know when I was coming up, there was so much less available when there wasn’t the internet, when there wasn’t great resources like you that were just collating massive amounts of data and really extrapolating like we were talking about. Just thinking about things outside the box and coming up with what’s next, and I love that you’re a part of that, and it’s fun to read your thoughts or listening to your thoughts and come up with the future for performance.
Ben: Awesome, man. Well thank you, I appreciate that, and I’m off to have a cup of coffee combined with maybe some creatine, some krill oil, some CBD and maybe I’ll throw some theanine in there or something like that to celebrate our podcast.
Shawn: That’s a great stack, I love it.
Ben: What a stack wave, I’ll let you know if it’s a great stack.
Shawn: Alright thanks, Ben.
Ben: Alright thanks for coming on the show, and folks thank you for listening in. This is Ben Greenfield and Shawn Wells, signing out from The Ben Greenfield Fitness Show.
My guest in today’s podcast, Shawn Wells, MPH, RD, CISSN, has probably forgotten more about supplements than most people will ever know. His brain contains an extremely unique blend of time spent in the science trenches and a formal education in the fields of performance nutrition and supplementation.
Shawn attended UNC-Chapel Hill, earning a Master’s degree in Nutrition and minor in Exercise Science. His education also includes credentials of Registered Dietitian, Certified Sport Nutritionist (CISSN), and board member of the ISSN. His role as CEO of Zone Halo Research, a consulting group for supplement formulations, and CSO of Biotrust, along with extensive experience in formulating supplements for big companies (likely some of the ones you’ve tried in the past few years) distinguish him as an expert in sports nutrition and supplementation.
If you’re into supplements, you will love this interview with Shawn Wells. We discuss:
-How Shawn went from being a practicing Chief Clinical Dietitian to being in the thick of the supplement industry, and some of the most helpful books he read along the way…
-The most important factors that differentiate a high-quality supplement manufacturer from a low-quality one…
-The deceptive practice of “fairy-dusting” and why many, many supplement manufacturers do it…
-How to know if taking different supplements together (e.g. stacking) can be dangerous, or on the flipside, more efficacious than taking one at a time…
-Why a supplement can rapidly degrade as soon as you put it into your refrigerator or pantry…
-Why everything from solubility to flavor additives can make or break the absorption and efficacy of supplements like whey protein…
-Why you could be getting 600mg of caffeine (6 cups of coffee!) in an average “energy” supplement that says it only has 100mg…
-The surprising development that Shawn things is the next big thing in the world of supplements and nutrition…
-And much more!
Resources we discuss during this episode:
-Book “The Four Agreements”
Do you have questions, comments or feedback about how to know supplement ingredients or anything else Shawn and I discuss? Leave your thoughts below.