Are Brand Name Drugs Better Than Generics? Drugs are not Cornflakes

May 31, 2011 Natasha Tracy

As most people know, when a drug is developed, the drug manufacturer receives a patent on that drug. The patent means no one else may produce that drug for a period of time. Drug patents in the US are 20 years, but these patents begin before clinical testing, so really, the drug manufacturer has about 7-12 years of patent protection once the drug is on the market.

After the patent expires, other companies may produce the drug, these are called generics.

Do you really need to pay the high price for brand name Prozac or is the generic, fluoxetine, just as good?

Brand Names are Better than Generics

Over the years, commenters have stated brand name drugs are “better.” I suspect this is just a common thought people have because they don’t like generic cornflakes as much as the brand name. But drugs are a bit different from corn flakes. There is no “Corn Flake Administration,” monitoring quality.

branded-cornflakesDrugs are Not Cornflakes

Generic drugs are not like that. Generics are controlled by the FDA just like brand name drugs. I can’t just stick something like the drug into a capsule and sell it. If I could do that, I’d be quite wealthy by now.

The active ingredients in a generic drug must be the same and act the same as the brand name drug. (And brand name drugs have to publish their chemical formula as part of the patent, so, you know, it’s not too hard to find.)

Generic Drugs are the Same as Brand Name Drugs

Of course, when I say, “the same,” what I’m really saying is they’re the same according to a scientific and legal definition. No one does a molecule-by-molecule comparison. That would be a bit tricky. And in fact, if you could do a molecule-by-molecule comparison, even different batches of the brand name drug would be different. Manufacturing is like that.

The way the FDA determines equivalency is a bit complex, but suffice it to say the active ingredient must be the same, it must dissolve the same way in the human body and it must produce the same results with the same dosage. This is called bioequivalence.

This is within a statistical margin, however. Bioequivalence of the generic drug is required to be 80% to 125% of the brand name drug.

mp9004430991Gah. That Sounds Terrible!

I know it sounds terrible, but understand, this is statistics we’re talking about. In practice the difference is more around 3%-4% (as shown in a review of 2070 studies). This is about the same as the variance possible from different batches of the same brand name drug.

The Caveat

The one thing to realize is while the drugs are the “same” and the active ingredients are thoroughly tested, inactive ingredients may differ. These agents, like binding agents, have no active effect but nevertheless may change how an individual responds to a specific medication. Understand, this is vastly the exception and not the rule.

Occasionally a generic drug will be suspected of being less effective than the brand name (due to patient and doctor reporting) and the FDA will investigate. The Administration of Corn Flakes has your back on this.

While I, personally, have no trouble taking generic drugs and no trouble saying they are the same, there is no accounting for individual chemistry.

So Generics are the Same as the Brand Name Drug

Yes, in my opinion (and in the FDA’s) generic drugs have the same effect as brand name drugs. It’s simply another case in life where paying more (say, five-ten times more) does not mean you’re getting a better product, it just means you’re getting better marketing.

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Laser-branded cornflake (seriously) picture from Ad Age Global.

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2011, May 31). Are Brand Name Drugs Better Than Generics? Drugs are not Cornflakes, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, May 29 from

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate, and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. She's also the host of the podcast Snap Out of It! The Mental Illness in the Workplace Podcast.

Natasha is also unveiling a new book, Bipolar Rules! Hacks to Live Successfully with Bipolar Disorder, mid-2024.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleX, InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

Natasha Tracy
June, 10 2011 at 6:37 am

Hi Te,
I agree, it's always good advice when changing a med, even to a generic, to pay attention. And you are also right, there are many different companies (especially in the US) that make generics.
As for finding out about generic ingredients I believe they have to be listed here:
You can search for the drug, generics included.
For a specific drug they then list the "label information" which lists both the active and inactive ingredients. Why your pharmacist doesn't know this, I have no idea.
I don't know if you want to go to all that work, however.
There is also an inactive ingredient search available by the FDA:
(It's quite amazing, actually, you can see the drug approval process and everything.)
Hope that helps.
- Natasha Tracy

June, 10 2011 at 6:01 am

I must be one of the few people who are sensitive to the "inactive" ingredients which include, among other things, the TRANSPORT MECHANISM of the active ingredient. The quality control standards are looser on the generics, as mentioned in the article. Some generics work just fine for me. For other drugs, I require the brand.
One thing that bugs me is that it is nearly impossible to find out the inactive ingredients in a generic prescription drug. Even my pharmacist has run into problems finding out this information. However, it's VERY EASY to find out what these ingredients are for not only brand name prescription drugs, but also over the counter drugs. Did you know that lactose is commonly used in pills? I didn't know this until I became lactose intolerant. It's not enough to look up just the drug, either. Take Invega, for example. Some doses have lactose and others don't.
When switching from brand to generic Lamictal, my doctor's advice was this: closely monitor myself and also write down the manufacturer of the drug each time I got it filled, as different companies will make different formulas and I may react differently to different generics. This all became a moot point when the generic Lamictal made me vomit every time I took it but it is still great advice.
One last point. Wellbutrin actually has TWO DIFFERENT generics: Bupropion and Budeprion. When I was taking Wellbutrin, which version I would get from the pharmacy was essentially random, and even though they are "the same" I reacted differently each month. I actually found that I did better on the Budeprion, which is NOT what's in Wellbutrin.
The takeaway: pay attention to what you are getting and try to keep it consistent if you are sensitive to these things.

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