Mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, and pesticide residues are finding their way into your herbal dietary supplements, according to a recent Congressional investigation and reported in The New York Times. Nearly all of the supplements tested in the investigation were found to contain trace amounts of heavy metals–and although those levels did not exceed thresholds considered dangerous (by the F.D.A.’s standards, at least), 16 of the 40 supplements tested contained pesticide residues that appeared to exceed legal limits. Some supplements have even been known to include prescription medications, like Viagra.
It’s a Jetson’s-like idea that most of us have become completely accustomed to: condense the nutritious elements of food into a neat little pill. Take the pill, and voila, you have all you need for optimal health. It’s a theory and practice enjoying tremendous popularity in America ever since the 1970s when chemist extraordinaire Linus Pauling began promoting the importance of supplemental vitamins–in particular, vitamin C to ward off colds.
The health benefits of taking dietary supplements has been controversial in medical circles, but the American public has eaten the idea up–to the tune of $25 billion dollars per year. Half of all American adults take some type of dietary supplement regularly. The growing popularity has led to an increasing number of imported supplements containing contaminants, spiked with illegal drugs, and promising false health claims.
According to the article in the Times, Congress passed legislation in 1994 that allowed supplement makers to sell products without first getting approval from the F.D.A. for their ingredients or for basic health claims. But scientific organizations have warned repeatedly since then that the F.D.A. should do more to ensure that the supplements are safe and that their health claims are substantiated.
In recent years, most supplement suppliers have moved or opened abroad, mostly in China. Nearly all of the vitamin C and many other supplements consumed in the United States are made from ingredients made in Chinese plants. The Times states that those plants are almost never inspected by the F.D.A. because the agency is not required to do so, has little money to do so and does not view the plants as particularly risky. Ahem.
The report summarizing the investigation was prepared by the Government Accountability Office and will be made public at a Senate hearing on Wednesday. In two weeks the Senate is scheduled to begin debate on a landmark food safety bill that is expected to greatly increase the federal government’s authority over food manufacturers. It is also likely to mandate that supplement makers register annually with the F.D.A. and allow the agency to recall supplements suspected of being dangerous.
But it is uncertain how tough the bill will be on supplement manufacturers. Why? It has been the subject of fierce lobbying. Capitol Hill staff members familiar with the process said the bill was unlikely to include provisions opposed by supplement manufacturers. Remember, it is a $25 billion market after all. Sigh.
We’ll keep you posted as the hearing progresses, but in the meantime it would be prudent to make sure that the manufacturers who produce the supplements you take are reputable ones. Many people claim great benefit from supplements, but keep in mind that most scientists believe that the benefits of a healthful diet come from eating the whole fruit or vegetable, not just the individual vitamins or components found in it. So while the Senate and lobbyists are doing the thing that the Senate and lobbyists do, perhaps the workaround is to simply skip the supplements…and eat your fruit and vegetables.