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What Everyone Should Know about the Contamination of Supplements

Supplement bottle

About half of the U.S. population consumes dietary supplements every day. This booming industry, which includes substances such as vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, and enzymes is regulated as a food by the various drug agencies in the United States that purport to protect consumers. Unfortunately, this “food” classification has resulted in a lack of adequate pre-market testing measures that could keep consumers safe [1].

While many dietary supplements provide important health-related benefits, the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) exempted supplements from the rigorous testing required of pharmaceuticals. Manufacturers and distributors of these dietary supplement products were urged to “self-monitor” for safety and effectiveness much the way the fragrance industry monitors itself at the expense of consumers (the fragrance industry is not even required to disclose its ingredients on product labels). While the FDA is technically in charge of monitoring these industries to ensure that the products available on store shelves are safe, it seems this technicality has been overlooked leaving consumers unprotected [1][2].

Certain supplements, in particular, those that are marketed for weight loss, muscle building, or sexual enhancement, have been found to contain pharmaceuticals that are not listed on the product labels. A variety of other supplements including some Chinese herbs have also been found to contain pharmaceutical adulterants. Some of these supplement products contain more than one pharmaceutical ingredient that is not listed on the label. These covert pharmaceutical agents are powerful and dangerous when taken by patients who may be taking other prescription drugs that could interact with them in a negative way. The most common adulterants found in the products tested was sildenafil (also known as Viagra) for sexual enhancement, sibutramine (also known as Meridia) for weight loss, and synthetic steroids for muscle building. All of these pharmaceuticals could have devastating adverse effects for individuals who are unaware that they are taking them [1].

As news of this problem becomes widespread, many Americans wonder whether they should continue taking supplements or not, which is unfortunate because many vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, and enzymes have important physical benefits that can’t be duplicated by pharmaceuticals. Natural supplements, as a rule, are much less likely to cause death or adverse physical reactions than pharmaceutical agents. In fact, pharmaceuticals are the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer in the U.S. and Europe. About half of the patients who die each year as a result of prescription drugs took their medication correctly, according to their doctor’s prescription. The other half died as a result of errors such as over-dosage or drug consumption despite contraindications. Somehow, despite these grim statistics regarding pharmaceuticals, the media focus is on supplements as opposed to the dangers of the pharmaceuticals that are corrupting them [3].

Currently, the FDA is only giving a slap on the wrist to manufacturers that continue to adulterate their dietary supplement products with dangerous drugs. For example, the FDA recently identified at least 28 products that received two to three warnings more than 6 months apart. Of those 28 products, 19 reportedly contained additional, new, unapproved ingredients by the time the manufacturer received the second or third warning. In other words, the FDA found these products to be adulterated on more than one occasion, but the products continued to be available to the public. As a result, many Americans are worried that the supplements they take daily to avoid taking pharmaceuticals or to avoid certain physical problems that are difficult or impossible to treat with pharmaceuticals, may be contaminated with the very drugs they’re trying to avoid. Consumers feel concerned about the lack of regulation and the FDA’s apparent lack of concern about this problem. Americans want to know, is there any way to mitigate this problem? What can normal, working people do to protect themselves from pharmaceutical adulterations in their dietary supplements? [1][3].

Before the average American takes stock of their personal stash of vitamins and minerals and considers the potential dangers of supplements, it’s important that they understand that while some supplements may be adulterated, many other supplements are not. The American media is expert at getting the public to focus in on exceptions rather than the rule. But still, buyers must beware. The wise consumer seeks out reliable sources of information, rather than giving up on a product just because the media disses it. The FDA is not protecting consumers who purchase supplements. So how can you find dietary supplements that are not adulterated?

Prescription drugs continue to be found in supplements that are available right now on store shelves. Many of these drugs have the potential to cause serious adverse reactions and even death. This is a serious problem, but consumers can benefit from realizing that not all dietary supplements are dangerous. Despite the fact that the FDA is not adequately protecting consumers in this case, it is possible to find dietary supplements that are safe [1][3].

First of all, as a consumer, it’s important to vet out good resources for your dietary supplements. Seek out the highest-quality products on the market to avoid adulterants and get the best results possible from the supplements you’re putting inside your body. There are companies such as Wellevate that do independent testing on supplements to ensure that you’re getting what you pay for, nothing more, nothing less. The Emerson Quality Program  was developed to provide health practitioners with scientifically reliable information about the quality standards of brands that participate in the program, but consumers can benefit from this information as well to find high-quality, pure dietary supplements that provide an honest list of ingredients backed by independent testing.

In summary, though the FDA and other drug agencies are not holding supplement manufacturers and distributors to stringent quality standards, there are other private business entities that are working to protect consumers from issues such as pharmaceutical adulterants in dietary supplements. Rather than give up on supplements as a viable way to achieve physical goals, it might be time to give up on food and drug-policing agencies and look to other, more reliable resources such as Wellevate for information about dietary supplements that you can trust.

 

Resources:

[1] Tucker, J., Fischer, T., Upjohn, L., Massera, D., Kumar, M. (2018). Unapproved Pharmaceutical Ingredients Included in Dietary Supplements Associated With US Food and Drug Administration Warnings. Retrieved October 16, 2018 from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2706496

[2] U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2018). Dietary Supplements. Retrieved October 16, 2018 from https://www.fda.gov/food/dietarysupplements/

[3] Gotzsche, P. C. (2014). Our prescription drugs kill us in large numbers. Retrieved October 16, 2018 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25355584

[4] EmersonEcologics (n.d.). Retrieved October 16, 2018 from https://edu.emersonecologics.com/quality/

 



Author
Dr. Minna Yoon, ND, L.Ac.

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