How a Scarsdale doctor became one of the nation’s leading vitamin watchdogs
By Sue Treiman–
On a quiet block in Scarsdale, a physician-turned-consumer-superhero has spent two decades helping keep the $36 billion U.S. supplement industry honest. And COVID-19 hasn’t slowed him down.
Tod Cooperman, MD, 58, is founder and president of the Westchester-based ConsumerLab.com, LLC (CL), a leading provider of independent testing and information about health and nutrition products. For 21 years, CL has reviewed and rated more than 100 categories of such supplements; over 6,000 products.
Cooperman has also testified before Congress; raised alarms about tainted products; pinpointed manufacturing deficiencies; and become an unofficial consumer watchdog for the 84 percent of Americans who regularly take supplements. This year, some vitamins, herbal remedies, and treatments touted as COVID-19 preventives were added to that list, with reviews available in CL’s Coronavirus Information Center.
Behind Cooperman’s vigorous pursuit of vitamins? Mom.
“The guiding question when ConsumerLab began was the same as today; what would I tell my mother if she asked which specific supplements were safe,” says Cooperman. Based in White Plains, with an office in Cooperman’s home, and a Vernon, N.J. laboratory, CL maintains an updated A (acai) to Z (zinc) directory of products sold in vitamin stores, pharmacies, supermarkets, mass merchandisers, discount clubs, catalogs, health care practitioner offices, and other venues. The company’s 12 staffers occupy the space between federally-approved pharmaceuticals and largely unregulated over-the-counter remedies. There, Cooperman knows, pretty much anything can – and does – go.
“The most surprising thing has been realizing how often a manufacturer is simply unaware its product has a problem,” he says.
“We’ve seen vitamins that have up to three times the correct amount of an active ingredient and we’ve seen the opposite, where the ingredient isn’t there at all.”
He cites a popular cooking oil that contained none of the oil it advertised; a women’s multivitamin with high levels of lead; and a leading probiotic that offered only half the listed number of “good”bacterial colonies. Then, there was the undigestible vitamin C tablet.
“We tried to test it but couldn’t break the pill with a hammer or anything else,” Cooperman says. “It couldn’t be metabolized, so it would’ve been completely useless in the body.”
CL’s online-only findings are supported by 90,000 member-subscribers, 84 per cent of whom are consumers, says Cooperman. The rest are universities, libraries, and other institutions. Members can access daily-updated news, major probes that appear several times a month, 600 answers to supplement-related questions, over 1000 recall notices and warnings, and regular explanatory videos. A twice-weekly newsletter reaches over 200,000 people – many, quite vocal.
“And we really listen to what they have to say,” says Cooperman.
During the pandemic. readers asked about products touted as immunity boosters, including vitamin D, vitamin C, magnesium, zinc, and elderberry. CL also examined COVID-19-related best-sellers, including masks, pulse oximeters (to measure blood oxygen), air purifiers, and hand sanitizers (which can be deadly).
Cooperman twice brought his concerns about dietary supplement quality to Capitol Hill, testifying before the House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform in 2006 and at the Senate Special Committee on Aging in 2010.
He’s served as a columnist, expert, and industry opinion leader, but never seen patients. At Boston University Medical School, he became so fascinated by the biopharmaceutical industry that, by graduation in 1987, his business aspirations had trumped any interest in a clinical practice. Instead, he launched a company to track consumer satisfaction with some aspects of managed care, while seeking the perfect entrepreneurial opportunity.
It arrived in 1994 when the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) allowed manufacturers to make limited claims about their products’ ability to maintain good health. The law sent vitamin sales soaring but left consumers without reliable information about what they were buying.
“The FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) would occasionally come in like a firefighter to douse flames when there was an obvious problem, but they were otherwise hands-off,” Cooperman says.
That bothered him.
He sold his company, hired a former FDA tester, established his lab, and launched the first independent, scientifically-based /consumer-focused evaluator of supplements. Where the renowned Yonkers-based Consumer Reports sometimes assessed a single supplement, CL would monitor all products, continually and in depth.
“Our goal was to go beyond the best or worst products to drill down to detailed clinical information about whether a product would work or not – including safety concerns and drug interactions,” says Cooperman.
CL (like Consumer Reports) ensured totally objectivity by refusing advertising, payments, or donations, and by purchasing products for testing itself, from neighborhood stores. Manufacturer samples were not allowed. Subscriptions covered operating costs. (Although CL’s voluntary Quality Certification Program assesses products for a fee, permitting those that pass to display a certification badge. Trusted nonprofit U.S. Pharmacopeia or USP also offers certification but reviews fewer products.)
In the years since DSHEA, the FDA has become somewhat tougher on non-prescription drugs, but Cooperman still considers their efforts “weak and inconsistent.”
That’s not true in the Cooperman home, where his wife and three grown children are routinely drawn into his supplement probes.
“My family’s acutely aware of the pros and cons of every test. It’s common dinner table conversation,” he says.
Cooperman regularly takes Vitamin D when sunshine is scare. He’ll occasionally add vitamin B12 and protein powder, a necessity for a mostly non-meat-eater. He’s such an ardent fan of dietary fiber (in food) that his college-aged kids call him “Fiberman.”
“Every morning I eat two bowls of hot steel cut oats with kasha, fruit, nuts, and Greek yogurt,” he says.
The Fiberman diet helps sustain his energy, but the grateful feedback he gets from subscribers is just as galvanizing.
“The thing we most commonly hear is that CL is their go-to source before buying these products,” says Cooperman. “That makes me and my CL colleagues feel great; motivated, and focused.”
And, he adds, it’s reassuring to moms, too.