Proceed With Caution Before You Swallow All the Hype About Dietary Supplements

Always looking for the latest and greatest way to stay healthy, Americans spend a reported $13 billion a year on herbal dietary supplements to increase energy, improve memory, and enhance their sex lives, and for weight loss, but new DNA testing shows that if you are one of the many who uses these products, you may not be getting the health benefits you bargained for.

DNA testing recently conducted on many of the dietary supplements carried by well-known retailers at the behest of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman revealed that 4 out of 5 do not contain the herbs listed on their labels, and many contain unlisted fillers that may actually be harmful to consumers. Attorney General Schneiderman accuses Target, Wal-Mart, GNC, and Walgreens of fraudulently selling mislabeled and tainted dietary supplements, and has demanded supplements be removed from store shelves. He is also demanding that these retailers and some of the involved manufacturers provide detailed information about the source of the ingredients in their supplements and whether they are natural or man-made, and proof of the health claims made on supplement labels.

DNA testing called barcoding was done to determine the content of some of the more common supplements used by Americans such as gingko biloba, Echinacea and St. John’s Wort, to name a few, and results found that only 21% of the supplements tested contained the DNA of the ingredients listed, and many contained ingredients not listed on the packaging. DNA barcoding revealed that many of the 65,000 dietary supplements on the market contain cheap fillers like rice, asparagus, radish, beans, carrots, mustard and DNA from houseplants, none of which provide the health benefits claimed on the supplement labels. Testing also showed that supplements labeled “gluten-free” were often found to contain wheat, and some supplements contained peanuts that were not listed on the label, both of which can be very dangerous and potentially deadly to people who have allergies to these substances.

Unlike drugs, herbal dietary supplements are not subject to FDA regulation and oversight because they are not considered to be either a food or a drug. Many people mistakenly believe that supplements undergo the same rigorous testing and evaluation as pharmaceutical drugs, which they do not. The FDA requires only that supplement manufacturers verify that their products are safe, and properly labeled, so manufacturers are responsible for self-regulating and reporting which typically does not work very well in favor of the consumer.

Two Senate Democrats, Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) are urging the FDA to conduct a thorough investigation of the dietary supplement industry, and want more FDA oversight of the industry and its products in order to protect the consuming public. The American Medical Association has warned of dire health consequences suffered by some people using tainted dietary supplements including kidney failure, hepatitis C and death. As recently as 2013, 72 people in 16 states were stricken with hepatitis C which also required 3 liver transplants and caused one death, that was later traced back to a tainted dietary supplement. A Harvard study found that 237 dietary supplements were recalled between 2004 and 2012, accounting for more than half of the Class I recalls which are ordered when there is a threat of death or serious injury.

And do not feel you are immune from adverse reactions by first “doing your homework” about dietary supplements. People who are diligent in researching products before using them find it hard to uncover credible information about dietary supplements since most of the information available is provided by supplement manufacturers and industry groups supporting supplement makers, which are high on exaggerated claims of health benefits and low on critical, objective analyses of those alleged benefits and potential risks.

We recommend asking your doctor about the efficacy of taking dietary supplements as part of your overall health strategy before swallowing the hype contained on supplement labels and in advertising. We also strongly support the call for more FDA oversight of dietary supplements because of the potentially serious health consequences to consumers. As far as dietary supplements are concerned, we’re still living in the “Wild West” and the best advice at this point is buyer beware.