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Are YOUR supplements duds… or worse, laced with toxic chemicals linked to heart disease? Experts warn of ‘wild west’ FDA regulation

Dietary supplements may seem like the healthy choice – but experts say the industry is full of unregulated products that could burn a hole in your wallet or send you to the hospital. 

By the FDA’s own estimates, over 700 products – often sold in health shops or grocery stores – don’t contain what they say they do.

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In the best case, these products don’t do anything, but increasingly testing is finding cancer causing chemicals, supplements doctored with prescription drugs and misleading labels. 

It’s this ‘wild west’ situation that means Dr Jeffery Linder, the chief of general internal medicine at Northwestern, doesn’t recommend any supplements – unless someone is ill or pregnant.

‘They’re wasting money and focus thinking there has to be a magic set of pills that will keep them healthy,’ he said.

‘Sometimes what’s in the bottle can be very worrisome,’ Dr Pieter Cohen, a associate professor at Harvard Medical School, told Discover

The worst supplements, which end up sending over 23,000 people annually into the hospital, are those that promise to boost sexual health, help lose weight or build muscles. 71 percent of those visits occurred because people were experiencing heart palpitations and chest pain.

Many of these products simply don’t contain what they say they do, Dr Cohen, wrote in a 2018 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. .

The two main ways that supplements get messed with are when manufactures add a less expensive ingredient in place of a more expensive ingredient listed on the label, or by adding a drug into what is supposed to be a natural product, Dr Cohen said. 

Some of the things added to weight loss pills included generic Prozac, laxatives’ and a drug called sibutramine, which was removed from the market for its risk of causing heart attack. 

Sibutramine, which has been found in roughly 72 brands of weight loss supplements, has been found to increase blood pressure, heart rate and fatal heart disease

Weight loss supplements were one class of drugs particularly associated with bad outcomes

Weight loss supplements were one class of drugs particularly associated with bad outcomes

 Sildenafil, the generic version of the drug Viagra, has also been found in a number of ‘natural’ sexual health supplements, Dr Cohen said. 

This could be dangerous for people who didn’t know what they were taking. For example, people with pre-existing heart conditions might be at risk for developing dangerously low blood pressure if they take Viagra.   

Over 9 years, the FDA found 746 supplements that contained ingredients not listed on the label. The majority of these brands fell into the sexual health, weight loss, or sports categories, Cohen said.

When the FDA identifies a dangerous or misleading supplement brand on the market, it notifies consumers, but doesn’t require the brand to recall it’s product. The agency relies on a voluntary recall system, which effectiveness Cohen said, ‘has been questioned.’

One study identified that 66 percent of the supplements recommended for recall by the FDA were still being sold a year later. 65 percent of those still being sold still contained the products that led the FDA to call for the recall in the beginning. 

All told, this has experts like Dr. Greg Hagan, the former president of The American Academy of Pediatrics, calling the supplement industry an ‘utterly unregulated Wild West market.’ He told the Boston Globe that the products on the market ‘range from useless to harmful.’

Some legislators are starting to take on taming the wild wild west. 

Many types of supplements may not give you much benefit unless you're ill or pregnant, experts say

Many types of supplements may not give you much benefit unless you’re ill or pregnant, experts say

New York has set a ban on selling weight loss and muscle building supplements to minors, which will go into effect later this month.  Disagreement among experts at what the age limits should be have slowed efforts to tame the industry, as has legal battles from supplement lobbies. 

Harvard’s Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders has taken on the advocacy edge, and called repeatedly for the banning the sale of weight loss supplements to minors. 

Still, progress is slow, partially because of legal threats from big-supplement.

‘Like Big Tobacco, the deep-pocketed supplements industry is flooding statehouses with their lobbyists sowing lies and confusion about their products to keep lawmakers from acting’ Dr Gabriela Vargas, who is part of Harvard’s Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders, which advocates against supplement sale to minors, wrote for MedPage Today

Vargas calls for national regulation of the industry, writing: ‘the time has come for necessary and commonsense action by lawmakers: Put people before profits and keep these dangerous supplements out of kids’ hands.’


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