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Many Supplements Worse Than Useless

Even when we’re given good advice at health food stores, the recommended dietary supplements may not contain what they say on the label. In my last Care2 column, Bad Health Food Store Advice, I run through some of the studies suggesting that health food store employees do not appear sufficiently trained or knowledgeable to be dishing out medical advice. One of the studies I detail in my 2-min. video Bad Advice From Health Food Store Employees found at least some uniformity in their recommendations. Researchers went into health food stores feigning depression and most were given St. John’s wort supplements (though at widely varying doses and without mentioning the significant drug reactions and side-effects such as photosensitivity). Still, at least they were vaguely consistent with their advice. What was not consistent was the level of the active ingredient, hypericin, promised on the labels. Ninety percent were wildly off, and 2 of the 13 they tested had none at all.

In the United States, dietary supplements are a $22 billion industry. That’s 10 times less than what we spend on prescription drugs, but still—$22 billion is no small potatoes. Many of us rightly rail against the political influence and commercial bias of the pharmaceutical industry, but are we to assume gazillion dollar supplement corporations are any less self-interested?

In my video pick today, shown above, a supplement industry representative attempts to rebut a mea culpa editorial in an alternative medicine journal decrying the predatory nature of dietary supplement marketing.

As I note in the video, adverse reactions to prescription drugs far exceed those ascribed to dietary supplements. The best way to avoid such side effects is to stay healthy enough to avoid both altogether. See Dr. Ornish’s editorial Convergence of Evidence and Say No to Drugs by Saying Yes to More Plants. There are also a number of natural remedies that may work as well, but have fewer side effects such as Saffron for Alzheimer’s, Flax Seeds for Prostate Enlargement, and Amla for Diabetes. Plants are powerful—check out my 3-min video Power Plants.

People taking dietary supplements may, in some cases, be paying to make themselves sick. In one minute I cover folic acid, beta-carotene, and green tea supplements in Some Dietary Supplements May Be More Than A Waste Of Money. For background on the folic acid versus folate story (which may explain any multivitamin breast cancer connection), see Can Folic Acid Be Harmful? Note, I still recommend folic acid supplements immediately prior to and during pregnancy. For more on avoiding the esophageal cancer I mention in the video, see Poultry and Penis Cancer, Coffee and Cancer, and Bacon and Botulism. Then for how to boost your absorption of carotenoid phytonutrients like beta-carotene see Raw Food Nutrient Absorption and Forgo Fat-Free Dressings? It’s unfortunate that green tea supplements have a scary side, but green tea itself has a variety of health-promoting properties.

Supplements may also be contaminated with toxic heavy metals. I’ve covered lead, mercury, and arsenic in many traditional remedies in my videos Some Ayurvedic Medicine Worse Than Lead Paint Exposure, Get the Lead Out, and Amla and Triphala Tested for Metals, but a Consumer Reports investigation is now questioning the safety of protein supplements. They found that more than half they tested exceeded the California prop 65 “Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act” action levels. See more in my 1-min. video Heavy Metals In Protein Powder Supplements.

I have more than five dozen videos on dietary supplements in general for those interested in taking a deeper look, with a number suggesting toxicity including fish oil, Juice Plus, Herbalife, blue-green algae, spirulina, green tea extracts, and noni juice. There are, however, supplements like vitamin B12 and vitamin D that are likely to be health-promoting, but otherwise we should really try to get our nutrients from Produce, Not Pills.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

Image Credit: erix! / Flickr

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Dr. Michael Greger

A founding member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, Michael Greger, M.D., is a physician, author, and internationally recognized speaker on nutrition, food safety, and public health issues. Currently Dr. Greger serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at The Humane Society of the United States. Hundreds of his nutrition videos are freely available at


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9:50AM PST on Feb 14, 2013

Thank you for sharing.

2:41PM PDT on Jul 31, 2012

But some are really helpful; pure green coffee bean extract, for exmple.

8:24AM PDT on Jul 31, 2012

Just keep an eye open for the reputable sources, there are many with quality ingredients, do your research and be aware. Many supplements are useful.

6:23AM PDT on Jul 23, 2012

True, there are lies everywhere, but I also know what works for me and my body, and I feel healthier with supplements. After being told by my previous doctor that I needed surgery for a particular problem, I consulted with a qualified herbalist (who had been practicing for 30+ years). I followed her advice, and within months my health problem was gone. Completely healed. Eating "healthy" isn't always enough for some of us - I needed something more to get me over my healing obstacle.

6:02PM PDT on Jul 18, 2012

Dr. Greger? Don't believe him! Take it from a 30 yr. supplement taker.

9:26AM PDT on Jul 14, 2012


3:15AM PDT on Jul 6, 2012

Yes, I know a lot of things are sold with lies or ignorance, but it was the owner of a health food store that recommended to me an herb (they sell) graviola (from Brasil). Along with turmeric (from India), after I refused surgery two doctors told me was the only option, my prostate cancer symptoms were gone in three weeks. My symptoms for a year of stomach ache and having to urinate every two to four hours, have gone. Now I can sleep eight hours without interruption. But with some experiments I also know that sugar (worst drug in the world) and caffeine would prohibit the solution.

(However, I am careful about who tells me something, and before using it do more research about it. If I believed doctors, I would have been already dead three times.)

5:08PM PDT on Jul 3, 2012

I agree that a lot of training is required to adequately recommend supplements to someone, like a doctorate or at least a masters degree. Sorry, but someone making $8 an hour is rarely qualified to help you. Most folks expect the clerk pushing a broom to know which products they should try. Literally! I work at a health food store and am regularly asked health-related questions by customers who assume that because I work at the store, I must know every answer to every question they might ask. They are so disappointed when I refuse to make a suggestion and recommend they seek the advice of a doctor or nutritionist first.
I think that expectation of knowledge, combined with the employers' expectations that employees train themselves and do or say anything to make a sale, is why most people who work at stores that sell this stuff will tell the customer what they want to hear, not what is in their best interest.
Long story short, stop asking people who should be unqualified to answer your questions and go to legitimate sources to get your answers.
Food is the best medicine, and even safe supplements give us a false feeling of being healthy just for taking them.

8:44AM PDT on Jul 3, 2012

Great video and links. I don't use a lot of supplements (only whole food) and I'm lucky that I am not on medication subscribed by the doctor. So happy to have your videos and comments for reinforcement and I learn so much as well. I will be sticking with veggies and fruits. Thank you!

5:35AM PDT on Jul 3, 2012

Remember as you swallow your supplements- somebody's making a lot of money from them.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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