Recently, I was horrified when my favorite indie DVD store, dimly lit and bursting with obscure movies I couldn’t find anywhere else, gave way to a brightly lit “Vitamin Shoppe.” It was bad enough to lose a great hang-out, but to be replaced by an antiseptic store featuring endless shelves laden with identical bottles was just plain wrong.
I have never been a fan of dietary supplements, believing in general they are a scam: I trust that if I eat a healthy diet, I can gain most of the nutrition I need naturally.
Now I’m finding out that I have good reason to be wary.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that approximately 50,000 adverse reactions to dietary supplements occur every year.
No Safety Testing For Dietary Supplements
This number is shockingly high because, unlike other medications, the FDA does not require that these supplements be tested for safety and efficacy before they are sold. As a result, manufacturers can market any kind of pill and call it whatever they want, without having to meet labeling or manufacturing standards.
In fact, many are not even made according to minimal standards of manufacturing. Some of the facilities where supplements are made have been found to be contaminated with rodent feces and urine.
Gee, doesn’t that sound healthy?
On December 15, The New York Times provided some shocking examples of dietary supplements that have been mislabeled, accidentally or intentionally:
In 2003, researchers tested “ayurvedic” remedies from health food stores throughout Boston. They found that 20 percent contained potentially harmful levels of lead, mercury or arsenic.
In 2008, two products were pulled off the market because they were found to contain around 200 times more selenium (an element that some believe can help prevent cancer) than their labels said. People who ingested these products developed hair loss, muscle cramps, diarrhea, joint pain, fatigue and blisters.
Last summer, vitamins and minerals made by Purity First Health Products in Farmingdale, N.Y., were found to contain two powerful anabolic steroids. Some of the women who took them developed masculinizing symptoms like lower voices and fewer menstrual periods.
Last month, researchers in Ontario found that popular herbal products like those labeled St. John’s wort and ginkgo biloba often contained completely different herbs or contaminants, some of which could be quite dangerous.
The FDA has the mandate to oversee the manufacture of these supplements. It doesn’t do it, presumably because it doesn’t consider them as important as other medications.
The Dirty Dozen
Consumer Reports has come up with its list of a “dirty dozen”: 12 supplements that they advise people to avoid. They rated them as anything from definitely hazardous, to very likely hazardous, and likely hazardous. Here’s the list:
* Androstenedione: “very likely hazardous”
* Aristolochic Acid: “definitely hazardous”
* Bitter Orange: “likely hazardous”
* Chaparral: “very likely hazardous”
* Comfrey: “very likely hazardous”
* Germander: “very likely hazardous”
* Kava: “very likely hazardous”
* Lobelia: “likely hazardous”
* Organ/glandular Extracts: “likely hazardous”
* Pennyroyal Oil: “likely hazardous”
* Skullcap: “likely hazardous”
* Yohimbe: “likely hazardous”
Which Supplements Can You Trust?
Of course, not all vitamins, amino acids, minerals and other supplements are equally dangerous, so how can you be sure that what you are buying is not going to harm you?
First, look for “U.S.P. Verified” on the label. This indicates that the supplement has been inspected and approved under the United States Pharmacopeial Convention. Unfortunately, fewer than 1 percent of the 55,000 or so supplements on the market bear this label.
Another answer is to be sure to buy products from a company or source that you know and trust. Consulting with your healthcare professional is also a good idea.
Meanwhile, until the FDA starts imposing the same regulations on these supplements that it does on other medications and indeed until anyone can prove to me that all those vitamins and minerals actually have legitimate benefits, my solution is to stay away from them.
At the very least, you should be aware that some dietary supplements have very dangerous side-effects.
Please spread the word!
Photo Credit: Thinkstock