If you’re concerned about your health and fitness, chances are you’ve probably taken at least one dietary supplement at some point in your life. With more than 85,000* dietary and performance supplements on the market today how do you know that you picked the right product?
Your decision was probably influenced by an advertisement, a Facebook blog post, or a recommendation from a friend. Was the supplement worth the money? Did it do what it claimed? Is it possible that, instead of improving your health, it could actually have put your health at risk?
Is What You’re Taking Safe?
Thanks to heavy lobbying by the supplement industry, dietary supplements are extremely lightly regulated in America, especially when compared to pharmaceutical drugs.** Most importantly, supplements don’t have to be tested for safety or effectiveness before being sold. In fact, the rules for selling dietary supplements in America are so lax that if we wanted to create a special new Unite dietary supplement made from distilling our members’ sweat, it’d take a long time for the Food and Drug Administration to come knocking on our door. (And even if they did, we wouldn’t have to test the product to see if it was safe and actually worked.)
Reputable companies will do their best to source quality ingredients, use good manufacturing practices, provide legitimate factual information on labels and register their companies with the FDA. But unfortunately, the performance supplements market is full of less trustworthy brands, and it’s highly likely that some of the supplements lurking in your cabinet may not have what’s actually listed on their labels. Worse, they could interact with your prescription drugs, contain illegal active ingredients, or be contaminated with substances like arsenic and lead.
- In April 2015 the FDA warned several supplement makers that their products had been found to illegally contain BMPEA, which is a chemical that’s related to amphetamine, and can cause dramatic increases in blood pressure that have been associated with strokes1
- In September 2015 the FDA sent warning letters to firms whose supplements contained as much caffeine in a single teasopoon as 28 cups of coffee2
- In 2013, a vitamin B supplement was found to contain steroids (if your multivitamin makes you grow facial hair, there’s probably a problem)3
- In 2013, nearly 50 people went to the hospital with severe liver damage after taking a diet supplement called OxyElite Pro; at least three people got liver transplants and one died4
- In 2010 the then commissioner of the FDA sent a warning letter to supplement makers saying that FDA tests had found an “alarming variety of undeclared active ingredients” in supplements, including anticonvulsants, anticoagulants, beta blockers and illegal anabolic steroids5
- Speaking of which, Viagra and Viagra analogues have been found in some sexual enhancers. So when someone claims their sexual enhancer worked just as well as Viagra, they might be right!
Doesn’t The FDA Regulate The Supplement Industry?
Technically yes, but according to Catherine Price, author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food (and long-time Unite member!), dietary supplements are regulated far more lightly than most of us assume. The trick, from a manufacturer’s perspective, is how they’re labeled: as long as a supplement doesn’t claim that it’s going to cure, prevent or treat a disease, the company is unlikely to get in trouble. (That’s why you see phrasing on supplement labels like “supports urinary health” instead of “prevents urinary tract infections.”) Also worth noting: while technically companies are required to register with the FDA, many don’t. And even those that do don’t have to tell the FDA which products they sell, which makes recalling dangerous ingredients nearly impossible.
What Steps Can You Take To Ensure Your Taking Safe Performance Supplements?
With all the concerns about supplement quality, you may wonder if it’s even worth taking any. And indeed, certain categories of supplements are so notorious for having active (and sometimes dangerous) ingredients beyond what’s on the label that it’s a good idea to avoid them completely (body building, weight loss and sexual enhancement products are particularly problematic, as well as any product that contains “proprietary” ingredients). As for the rest of the supplements on the market, the responsibility is on you, the consumer, to verify that what you’re buying actually is what it says it is.
Luckily, there are steps you can take to ensure that your supplements contain what they claim to—but you have to do your homework. (And remember: no one is testing dietary supplements for safety or efficacy.) Many reputable companies will pay to have an independent 3rd party company run tests to make sure that their products contain what’s on their labels. Look for seals with the NSF logo6, or that say “USP Verified.”7
You can also sign up for a membership to consumerlab.com, which is an independent company that pulls supplements off shelves and tests their contents (and provides a good summary of research about individual ingredients)—it’s a great investment for anyone who takes a lot of supplements. Labdoor.com is a newer company that does something similar.
If you’re going to take supplements, it’s essential that you do research to ensure what you take is actually what it claims to be, and that it is free from harmful contaminants. You wouldn’t take a pill offered to you by a stranger in a club (at least we hope not!)—so don’t take a dietary supplement without doing your homework first.
*According to the Nutrition Business Journal, there are more than 85,000 different products available in America today.
**The pharmaceutical industry is highly regulated by the FDA—it can take upwards of a dozen years and billions of research dollars to get a new drug approved. Companies can’t bring drugs to market without substantial evidence that they are both effective and safe. That doesn’t mean that the system is foolproof—unfortunately, prescription and over-the-counter drugs kill people every day. But that makes it all the more shocking that companies can sell dietary supplements without providing the FDA with any evidence for safety or effectiveness at all.