Supplements are a multi-billionaire dollar industry. These days, you can buy them in a variety of forms – vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, as well as supplements that claim to help you lose weight or build muscle. Many of these supplements make thinly disguised health claims, although manufacturers are more cautious these days as the FDA has cracked down on supplement manufacturers making unproven health claims. To get around it, they reframe their claims with more general language such as “supports digestive health” or “promotes immune health.”
The FDA may control the language supplements can use in their advertising, but they don’t regulate them until after they enter the market. You might be surprised to learn that supplements can land in stores without being tested for purity or safety. In other words, almost anyone can package a supplement into a pill and put it out on the market without approval by the FDA. The FDA will only step in and remove a supplement from distribution if they receive reports of adverse effects or other complaints. Even then, the FDA doesn’t rush to remove a supplement from store shelves. As they put it:
“In such cases, when a medication’s risks and known dangers outweigh its benefits, FDA and/or the manufacturer may decide that the product should be withdrawn from the market.”
As you can see, the supplement industry is regulated differently from pharmaceuticals. Drugs have to undergo extensive testing to prove their safety before being approved. In contrast, dietary supplements, including herbal ones, are treated as a food rather than a drug. The only stipulation is that a supplement maker follows good manufacturing practices and meet certain quality control standards. Still, as you’ll see, this isn’t always enough to keep contaminants out of products.
Consumer Lab is an independent testing firm that analyzes supplements, looking for contaminants that could be harmful. They also look for discrepancies between what’s listed on the bottle and what their testing shows. Then, they publish the results to subscribers. Unfortunately, they charge a small fee to get the information. Consumer Reports, another consumer watchdog organization, also occasionally publishes information about supplements, although they gather their information from external sources, like state and federal database, rather than doing the testing themselves.
Independent testing of supplements by such organizations has revealed a number of discrepancies between what’s in products and what’s on the label. Some of the discrepancies include supplements that contain too much or too little of a particular ingredient. However, some testing, particularly on herbal supplements, reveals products that contain NONE of the active ingredients.
You might think that buying from a reputable retailer would offer some assurance against fraud & sloppy manufacturing– but not necessarily. In 2014, the New York State attorney general demanded that four major retailers, Target, GNC, Walgreens, and Walmart, remove herbal products from store shelves. The reason? Testing showed that four out of five contained either insufficient amounts of the herb listed or none at all. Instead, the products consisted of mostly inexpensive fillers such as other plant material, ground-up beans, or rice.
In fact, five out of six samples of an herbal product sold under GNC’s name contained substances other than the herb listed on the label. For example, Ginkgo biloba pills were filled with rice, spruce, and asparagus. What’s concerning is GNC is one of the premier retailers of supplements with prices higher than many of their competitors. What about suppliers that sell their products at cheap prices? That’s why you should question the purity of every supplement that you purchase.
It’s not just herbs either. Independent testing of other supplements has also revealed discrepancies. Examples are protein supplements contaminated with heavy metals and weight loss supplements and bodybuilding supplements that contain pharmaceutical drugs. It’s buyer beware when your purchase and take supplements. If you take even a multivitamin, do your research. If you don’t want to join a site like Consumer Lab, the Dietary Supplement Label Database, offered by the National Institutes of Health, offers information about the ingredients in most supplements sold in the U.S. However, the data comes from the product’s label and is no guarantee that the product actually contains what it says it does. That’s why the information you get from independent testing is helpful.
Also, be sure you really need a supplement. Sometimes people use them as a replacement for eating a healthy diet. Instead, get your vitamins and minerals by eating a whole, unprocessed diet with an emphasis on plant-based foods. For most people, a healthy diet will supply enough vitamins and minerals. However, you may need one or more supplements if:
· You’re pregnant or plan on becoming so
· Are over the age of 50
· Eat a vegan diet
· Have a particular medical condition that depletes a certain vitamin or mineral
· You eat a calorie-restricted diet
You may also need a vitamin D supplement if you don’t expose your skin to sunlight regularly or live in an area that doesn’t get a lot of direct sunlight. In this case, it’s best to check a vitamin D level so you know how much to take. If you fall into one of these categories, talk to your doctor before purchasing a supplement. If you need one, research carefully to make sure you’re taking one that follows the industry standards for manufacturing it and, preferably, has undergone independent testing. Look for products with a USP (United States Pharmacopeia) seal of approval. When a product has this seal, it means that the supplement company has agreed to have the product independently tested. It’s an extra layer of reassurance that the product you’re getting is safe and high quality.
US Food and Drug Administration. “How does FDA decide when a drug is not safe enough to stay on the market?”
National Institutes of Health. “National Supplement Label Database”
New York Times Well. “New York Attorney General Targets Supplements at Major Retailers”
New York Times Well. “What’s in Those Supplements?”
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