Editorial: The “No-Holds Barred” world of the supplement industry


The truth about the unregulated, overhyped, and dangerous dietary supplements

Supplement capsules
supplement capsules

As a physician, my patients are constantly asking me what supplements will help them with their weight, performance, and illnesses. They want a quick fix so they are asking me what I would recommend for them to take to achieve a certain goal.  The problem for most patients and the medical provider that treat them is the level of hype and poorly performed research. Buying and taking supplements is truly walking that thin path through a mine field.

The use of dietary supplements has exploded dramatically in recent years in the United States. You cannot go many pages into a magazine or go through many commercial breaks on the radio without hearing or seeing an ad for one of these products. The industry is a booming 15-20 billion dollar market that is profiting on the hopes for help from a needy public. In fact, over 20% of the public takes one or more fo these babies. The problem is that the industry is praying on the public in a manner that is not too different than the traveling snake-oil salesman of the 19th century.

Pills: Ooo Pretty Colors
Pills: Ooo Pretty Colors

Many people falsely believe that because most supplement contain herbs that they are natural and therefore safe. You would think because they are marketed publicly to fix a problem or cure what ails you that they they must be safe and effective. Heck, many of the ads indicate that they are backed by research and well studies, but the fact is that most are not regulated at all. Most people believe these products are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but they are not and this false assumption cannot only injure you, it may just end your life.

The problem stems from the fact that these manufacturers can claim nearly anything they want with the right disclaimer. In 1994, Congress passed a law that turned the industry into the old Wild West which made basically anything fair game to the industry. The industry lobbied Congress heavily to pass new laws and Congress created the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. This Act placed supplements in the same category as foods to make them expempt from the standards we place on drugs. The completely neutered the FDA from protecting the public from supplements.

So, why is this a big deal? First, you must understand how drugs are tested and released to market. For a company to sell a new drug to the public, it must be proven safe to be sold. In other words, until it is tested properly on animal first and humans second, a drug is assumed to be unsafe. In supplements, the opposite is true and no clinical trials or research are required to sell them to the public. Until we proven it unsafe, supplement company can sell any pill to the public. Also, many of the supplements do not even contain the ingredients on the label or have ingredients not list on the label.

Ingredients not listed on the label? Yes, this absolutely happens. I have two examples to illustrate the risk. A few years ago, several large supplement manufacturers had to change their supplements after US Military members began testing positive for certain drugs on their urinalysis. Some were for steroid metabolites and others for amphetamines. Warnings were sent out, sales dropped, and they changed the supplement. Another more recent supplement was being sold as a male enhancement product called “Big P#$%^”. Samples tested positive for Viagra. The problem with both of these is that the public thought it was natural and the active ingredient was not. The Viagra is especially troubling because certain drugs mixed with Viagra can cause injury or death.

Unlisted ingredients? Yes. Without regulation requiring proof of safety, a manufacturer could take cat litter put it in a capsule and sell it as the next great weight loss supplement. Until people become sick and it tracked back to the supplement, it would remain on the market being touted by Hollywood stars who are paid spokespeople. I do not think they are selling cat litter but you get the point.

Supplements are marketed vigorously and many unsuspecting Americans take them every day. A recent journal article reviewed both vitamins and supplements that have been touted as being helpful to prevent heart disease. This review found that all supplements marketed to improve heart health, to include Vitamin E and CoEnyme Q, are ineffective and unneeded. Some of the reviewed supplements, such as a combination of calcium and vitamin D for example, may increase the rate of stroke in some subjects. More research is needed. Please do not stop drinking milk or taking calcium at this time because your risk fo fracture may be higher than your risk fo stroke.

So, why is Congress writing laws to avoid regulation on the supplement industry? The answer is simple: Money, Money, MONEY! The industry is a huge lobby with lots of cash and they have their filthy claws dug deep into many of our elected representatives in Washington. We have to acknowledge that it is poorly rated and demand a change in the regulations and laws to prevent this industry from harming us and our children. A good start would be laws that allow the FDA to police manufacturers and eliminate the addition of harmful ingredients.

My first recommendation is always a healthy diet with three to five small meals a day.  I am not saying no to supplements, but a healthy diet can make a huge difference may improve your health without the added cost and dangers of adding an untested and potentially dangerous supplement. There is no doubt supplements can be a huge help when trying to bigger, stronger, faster, and most importantly stay healthy, but you need to choose wisely and a healthy diet is must.

Secondly, talk to you medical provider, I suggest you discuss any supplements with a medical professional and this includes vitamins.  There are so many supplements available and the industry is full of charlatans, fakes, and phonies. A medical provider can help you avoid the ones that are dangerous and not needed.

The bottom line: The playing field is not fair and the supplement industry has laid the way to ensure their products are advertised as effective and safe and effective alternatives to pharmaceutical drugs when they are clearly not. If you want to takes supplements, do you research and talk to you medical provider. I would recommend you avoid most that make outlandish claims and demand your Senator and Representatives make change to protect us from this predatory industry.

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About the Author

I am a family physician who has served in the US Army. In 2016, I found myself overweight, out of shape, and unhealthy, so I made a change to improve my health. This blog is the chronology of my path to better health and what I have learned along the way.

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