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8 Alarming Truths That Make Supplement Marketers Squirm

Posted by Jerry De Luca on Friday, August 26, 2016

Marketers cleverly portray dietary supplements as the stress-free and trouble-free path to optimum health. The lure and enticement to resolving health issues by simple pill popping, instead of the daily discipline of a healthy diet and exercise, is hard to resist. Approximately 90,000 unique supplement products are sold in the US, earning makers north of $40 billion per year. Many are unaware of the actual dangers involved.   Here are eight alarming truths that make supplement marketers squirm. 

1)  The risks of dietary supplements cannot be denied. From 2008 to 2011 the Food and Drug Administration received 6,307 reports of adverse effects from supplements. Many were life-threatening and 92 people died. Some of the effects include organ damage and cardiac arrest. These supplements were sold not only at independent health food stores but in major retailers including Whole Foods, GNC and Costco.

The number of hospitalizations directly as a result of ingesting supplements should ring alarm bells:

“Each year, 23,005 emergency department visits stem from supplement-use problems, the researchers estimate. Of those visits, an average of 2,154 result in hospitalizations every year. The researchers defined each case as an emergency department visit where a clinician who treated the patient explicitly attributed the patient’s complication to dietary supplement usage.

“More than half of emergency department visits due to supplements involved female patients, and weight loss and energy products were responsible in more than half the visits for patients 5-34 years old. (The researchers did not look at energy drinks, which they said are typically considered food or drinks, not supplements.)”             http://time.com/4072487/supplements-cause-more-than-23000-er-visits-a-year/

2)  Dietary supplements are not regulated like prescription medication. The FDA requires supplement makers to test their product’s purity, composition, and strength, but they are not required to submit the results to the FDA.

The FDA does not require supplement manufacturers to:
--Prove they are safe
--Are effective (actually work)
--Contain what the labels claim

A nation-wide 2015 Consumer’s Reports survey found that half of Americans believed supplement manufacturers were required to test for efficacy and prove to the FDA their products were safe.

Pharmaceutical companies, on the other hand, are required to perform exhaustive clinical trials of a product and submit the data to the FDA for approval. Drugs must be irrefutably proven to be both safe and effective for the health issues involved. This takes several years and in many cases costs as much as $1 to $2 billion. 

3)  Just a few of the widely-reported risks include dietary supplements that:

--Contain heavy metals
--Are mislabeled, potentially causing harm
--Intentionally or not spiked with prescription or illegal drugs
--Interact and counteract the effectiveness of prescription drugs in current use

The FDA doesn’t have the resources to adequately monitor every manufacturer’s facility. According to the journal Drug Testing and Analysis, US retailers sell supplements from 15,000 manufacturers. The FDA has the budget to inspect only 400 companies per year.

Pieter Cohen, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a supplement researcher, notes: “Not only are the advertised ingredients of some supplements potentially dangerous, but because of the way they’re regulated, you often have no idea what you’re actually ingesting …. Weight-loss supplements, along with those for bodybuilding and sexual enhancement, are commonly found to contain pharmaceutical drugs or illegal chemicals.”

4)  The dangers and inadequacies of this Wild Wild West world of dietary supplements are obvious. Consumer’s Reports notes: “Prescription drugs are kept safe behind a counter manned by a licensed pharmacist. Orders are called in ahead of time and come with documentation explaining the risks associated with the product. Supplements come with no such safeguards. You can pluck them off a drugstore shelf without thinking twice. Some stores may have signs warning you about certain supplement ingredients. But if you have specific questions, you might be out of luck. Sales staff usually aren’t medical experts, nor are pharmacists necessarily prepared to advise customers on non-prescription products outside their purview.”

5)  The magazine sent 43 secret shoppers across the United States to Costco, CVS, GNC, Walgreens, Whole Foods, and the Vitamin Shoppe. Sixty stores were visited in 17 states. The results were not surprising:

“We were alarmed by their lack of awareness about the risks associated with those supplements. Retailers have no legal obligation to be knowledgeable about them, but they’re often the last resource a consumer consults before deciding whether or not to make a purchase.

“Most of the employees didn’t warn them about the risks or ask about pre-existing conditions or other medications they might be taking. Many gave information that was either misleading or flat-out wrong. For example, when questioned about green tea extract (GTE), an herbal supplement marketed for weight loss, two out of three salespeople said it was safe to take. None warned that the herb has been found to alter the effectiveness of a long list of drugs, including certain antidepressants and anti-clotting drugs. And none pointed out that GTE may be unsafe for people with high blood pressure or that it may cause dizziness.”

Similar results were found for Kava supplements, where store clerks did not know or inform shoppers that these supplements may impair driving, as well as aggravate depression and Parkinson’s disease. There was no information given that Yohimbe can dilute anxiety and depression medication, and can be risky for people with heart conditions. For a complete list see the Consumer’s Reports resource below.

6)  The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) has issued a report warning of the dangers:

“The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists believes that the widespread, indiscriminate use of dietary supplements presents substantial risks to public health and that pharmacists have an opportunity and a professional responsibility to reduce those risks. ASHP recognizes that patients may choose to use legally available dietary supplements, but believes that the decision to use substances that may be pharmacologically active should always be based on reliable information about their safety and efficacy. The current regulatory framework governing dietary supplements does not provide consumers or health care providers with sufficient information on safety and efficacy to make informed decisions. Furthermore, standards for product quality are currently inadequate.”  https://www.ashp.org/-/media/assets/policy-guidelines/docs/statements/use-of-dietary-supplements.ashx?l

The ASHP wisely advises physicians and pharmacists to inquire about patients supplement use: 

“Although most consumers of alternative therapies also take prescription medications, one survey found that 72% of respondents who used alternative therapies did not report that use to their health care providers. Pharmacists and other health care practitioners must therefore routinely inquire about a patient’s current or planned use of dietary supplements, providing examples so that patients understand what is meant (e.g, asking “Do you use dietary supplements, such as St. John’s wort or gingko?”). This information will allow pharmacists and other health care practitioners to counsel the patient about dietary supplement use and monitor for adverse reactions and drug interactions.”  https://www.ashp.org/-/media/assets/policy-guidelines/docs/statements/use-of-dietary-supplements.ashx?

7)  Some medical doctors across the US and Canada are making a fortune by selling dietary supplements, and various other health-related products, right from their offices or an on-site dispensary. The American Medical Association has denounced this and published ethical guidelines:

“Physicians who choose to sell health-related products from their offices should not sell any health-related products whose claims of benefit lack scientific validity. When judging the efficacy of a product, physicians should rely on peer-reviewed literature and other unbiased scientific sources that review evidence in a sound, systematic, and reliable fashion.

“Physicians may distribute other health-related products to their patients free of charge or at cost, in order to make useful products readily available to their patients. When health-related products are offered free or at cost, it helps to ensure removal of the elements of personal gain and financial conflicts of interest that may interfere, or appear to interfere, with the physician’s independent medical judgment.”      http://journalofethics.ama-assn.org/2010/12/coet1-1012.html

Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., a bioethicist at NYU Langone Medical Center, sounds the alarm: “The right thing to do is to tell patients the truth. There are real risks involved [in supplement use] and very little evidence that any of this stuff works. Period.”

8) Consumer’s Reports identified 15 unsafe supplement ingredients. Some of them are: Caffeine Powder, Germander, Green Tea Extract Powder, Kava, and Red Yeast Rice. Cardiac arrest, cancer, and organ damage are the most common potential effects. “The severity of these threats often depends on such factors as pre-existing medical conditions as well as the quantity of the ingredient taken and the length of time a person has been exposed to the substance.” For the complete list see   http://www.consumerreports.org/vitamins-supplements/15-supplement-ingredients-to-always-avoid/

Primary Sources

More Resources

Do Supplements Really Work? 8 Crucial Guidelines 

19 Vitamin & Mineral Supplements: What Works And What’s Bogus http://www.mybestbuddymedia.com/2014/09/19-vitamin-mineral-supplements.html

9 Quick Ways to Detect Online Supplement Scams ….. …….   http://www.mybestbuddymedia.com/2015/06/9-quick-ways-to-detect-online.html    

Photo: http://geierchiro.com/home/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/slide-fruit-vitamins.jpeg

Jerry De Luca is a Christian freelance writer who loves perusing dozens of interesting and informative publications. When he finds any useful info he summarizes it, taking the main points, and creates a (hopefully) helpful blog post.


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