Are Nutritional Supplements a Gamble?

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PBS Frontline Film:

Supplements and Safety

According to a new film by  PBS’s Frontline which aired January 19th, “There is no effective system to detect potential harm from supplements”.  The film also points the finger at the failed US Medwatch system at the FDA and their weak ability to keep up with all the potentially dangerous nutritional supplements  that are hitting the market without adequate regulation.



What’s the problem?

The film reveals what many of us in the health professions have known for years, that most health supplements are loosely regulated by government agencies like the FDA’s Medwatch.  Law prohibits manufacturers from selling products that are adulterated or mislabeled, and they cannot claim to cure things they don’t. But there is little oversight or enforcement to ensure they comply. And unlike prescription drugs, which pass through a strict premarket approval process, the Food and Drug Administration does not evaluate a supplement’s contents or effectiveness before it hits the shelves. Even then, the agency has only a modest capacity to test the pills.

The result is a more than $30 billion industry that is largely regulated by the honor system.

With this loose control, there is little to offer as guarantee that any vitamin, mineral, probiotic, sports supplement, herbal treatment, or other dietary supplement is safe, effective, or even contains what’s on its label.  Many tired consumers also incorrectly look for a quick fix from feeling sick and tired in the supplement aisle instead of looking what they are putting on their plates each day.


For example, an investigation by the New York Attorney General’s office found that several popular store-brand supplements at four major retailers — GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart — contained contaminants not listed among the labeled ingredients. Just 21 percent of them actually had the DNA of the plant species they purported to be vending.


What can you Do if You Take Supplements?

  • Consumer Reports compiled a list of the “dirty dozen”: Twelve ingredients linked to serious adverse health effects, but that remain on shelves.
  • The Federal Trade Commission also has a list of substances that have raised safety concerns.
  • Look to independent labs. A handful of private, independent nonprofits have stepped in to partially fill gaps in regulation, inspecting some dietary supplements and reporting the results. The United States Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) runs a voluntary program to inspect and certify the quality of a company’s products and facilities. Those that pass can place the organization’s yellow and black “USP Verified” seal on their product — less than 1 percent of all supplements on the market have this label. The international public health nonprofit NSF International runs a similar program aimed at sports supplements.
  • One other organization I recommend is .  They randomly test dietary supplements and report their findings. They provide a general review and summary information for free with full results accessible to paid members.


Bottom Line on Supplements:

Use Your Brain!

If it is touted as a miracle cure, magic pill or cure all- pass on it!

The FDA says consumers should beware of products that claim to do it all, and to do so instantly. Experts warn that products that primarily offer evidence in the way of personal testimonials are worthy of skepticism, as are products that use suspect medical jargon, like these examples offered by the FTC: “molecule multiplicity,” “glucose metabolism,” “thermogenesis,” or “insulin receptor sites.” And just because something is labeled “natural” is no guarantee that it is safe to consume.

Do your own research!

The U.S. National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus has similar information about herbs and supplements. Also use the Library of Medicine’s PubMed Dietary Supplement Subset. The database includes scientific literature on vitamin, mineral, phytochemical, ergogenic, botanical, traditional Chinese medicine, and herbal supplements in humans and animal models.

 Think about dosage!

Some otherwise safe vitamins and minerals can cause health problems if they are taken in excess. The Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board produces recommended daily dietary allowances as well as tolerated upper intake levels.

Also worth considering is that a supplement may have considerably higher quantities of a vitamin or mineral than it says on the bottle. Because certain vitamins degrade over time, manufacturers often provide more than the labeled quantities, to ensure there is still the labeled amount at the expiration date. The federally funded Dietary Supplement Ingredient Database hosts a multivitamin/mineral calculator that estimates the true quantity of a vitamin or mineral in a pill based on its labeled quantity.


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[…] to gain an edge in their recovery, I thought I’d repost this on my Stroke blog from my nutrition website with my takeaways after watching the Frontline special earlier this week on supplement […]

David says:

Here’s a list if dietary supplements known to have tainted ingredients, provided by the FDA:

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