The dietary supplement market is huge, so it is little surprise that many companies try to get in on the game by torturing data until it succumbs to their desires. An estimated 40 billion dollars are spent each year in North America on vitamins, minerals, herbal products and various esoteric fruit and animal extracts that purport to keep our bodies running smoothly in face of an avalanche of “toxic chemicals” unleashed by Big Pharma, Big Food, Big Agro and Big Beauty. Of course the dietary supplements never contain “chemicals,” they only contain “natural” substances that are portrayed as the secret to health. Advertisements feature trim, attractive bodies brimming with vigour thanks to nature’s gifts. Never mind that those gifts may not contain what the label indicates, that they may be adulterated with real pharmaceuticals, or that the “evidence” provided is on such a shaky platform that a little scientific jiggle leads to its collapse.
Since thousands and thousands of products vie for customers’ attention, producers are keen to find ways to make their supplement stand out. “Chewpods” claim to “provide beneficial effects on energy, concentration and ability to recuperate” with the discriminating feature that the tablets are meant to be chewed. The rationale is that delivery of the active ingredients through the oral mucous membrane bypasses the digestive tract and enables a smaller quantity of active ingredients to be absorbed more quickly for greater effect.
The theory of oral absorption is sound, and many medications, with nitroglycerin for angina being a prime example, are designed to enter the bloodstream by this route. Whether transport through the mucous membranes of the mouth is viable depends on a number of factors including the relative solubilities of the substance in oil and water, with a greater oil solubility being a requirement. The potential of the chemical to bind to mucous membranes and the pH of the saliva are also important. Exactly what technology Chewpod employs to enhance absorption through the mucus membrane of the mouth isn’t clear, although there is a claim about “personalized action that balances saliva pH.” Since the normal pH of the saliva is in the 6-7 range, and that is also the range where mucosal absorption is the most effective, there doesn’t seem to be any need for “balancing.” In any case, the evidence provided for faster absorption by means of the technology being used is based on experiments with aspirin and acetaminophen, not the ingredients in Chewpods.
Of course what interests consumers is not the technology involved in active ingredient delivery, but whether the ingredients deliver the goods. One would think that the issuing of a “Natural Products Number (NPN)” by Health Canada would guarantee that efficacy has been demonstrated, but one would be wrong! The evidence required is minimal, and in the case of products that have several ingredients, there is no requirement for any proof that the product as a whole is beneficial. For example, the “Sleep and Restore” version of Chewpods contains the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin as well as 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HTP), a precursor to serotonin, the neurotransmitter associated with mood. But the dosages are way less than those that have shown any efficacy in clinical trials. Nevertheless, just their presence is enough to get an NPN. There is no requirement to show that the supplement itself lives up to the advertising.
The “Focus and Action” version of Chewpods claims “that product helps to temporary relieve symptoms of stress such as mental fatigue and sensation of weakness, that it helps support cognitive function such as mental focus and mental stamina, that it provides antioxidants and that it helps the body to metabolize carbohydrates, proteins and fats.” Justification seems to be based on the supplement containing the stimulant caffeine as well as an extract of rhodiola which, at least according to some studies, reduces fatigue. The thin support for metabolizing carbohydrates, proteins and fat comes from the inclusion of vitamins A and B6, which play a role in numerous biochemical reactions.
But now for some numbers. The amount of caffeine (30 mg) is less than that in a cup of coffee, the vitamin A content at 80 mcg is about one tenth the recommended daily allowance, and the 72 mg of rhodiola extract, also the source of the over-hyped antioxidants, is way less than what has been shown to have any benefit in placebo-controlled trials. There is no harm in trying Chewpods, but remember that Health Canada’s NPN on the label does not mean it has been shown to be effective. And that is something to chew on.