You’ll Never Guess What’s Actually in Your Supplements…

You’ll Never Guess What’s Actually in Your Supplements…

By Jess Tran on Feb 11, 2015

Would you still take your fish oil if there was a 50/50 chance it was just canola? How about whey protein if the producers may have snuck some laxative in there?

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Would you still take your fish oil if there was a 50/50 chance it was just canola? How about whey protein if the producers may have snuck some laxative in there? The active, health-conscious consumer may not ponder these questions all that often, and you would hope that the integrity of your dietary supplements would never be called into question! 

However, the New York attorney general is on the warpath after a study from Ontario’s University of Guelph, published in BMC Medecine shed some light on shady industry practices.

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Half of Americans use some kind of Dietary Supplement according to the CDC, and the Dietary Supplement industry enjoys an annual $30 billion (!) in the United States, largely thanks to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) passed by Congress in 1994. DSHEA defined Dietary Supplements under a particularly broad umbrella including enzymes, organ tissues, and amino acids, as well as vitamins, minerals, and herbs.

The ostensible purpose of this piece of legislation was to increase Americans’ access to Dietary Supplements in a political and gastronomical climate where that access seemed (to some) to be in jeopardy. The health food industry’s lobby, which was largely responsible for the bill’s creation and passage, even created a weird and hilarious TV ad in which Mel Gibson is raided by FDA agents because he’s taking Vitamin C. It ends by encouraging Americans to call their senators and tell them they want to take their vitamins in peace. One of these senators, Orrin G. Hatch—a Utah Republican and the bill’s sponsor—has received 100s of thousands of dollars from the industry—surprise!—and continues to defend the loose regulatory framework for herbal supplements.

More dietary supplements for healthier Americans! Nothing suspect here, right?

Wrong.

Crucial to the augmented access to Dietary Supplements, DSHEA prevented the FDA from designating and treating Dietary Supplements as drugs, classifying them instead as food. That means the responsibility for testing the efficacy and safety of supplements falls on the companies producing them. No long and intensive FDA testing process to see if the stuff works and won’t produce any weird side effects.

If a company wants to create a product with a “new dietary ingredient,” it must verify the ingredient’s safety with the FDA, but luckily for companies producing Dietary Supplements, there’s no list of “old dietary ingredients,” so the company also gets to determine (read: decide) whether their ingredient is new. A whole lot of “Honor Code” at play.

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Which brings us back to the study from the University of Guelph, the New York attorney general’s subsequent study, and trouble in paradise for producers, retailers, and consumers of Dietary Supplements in America.

The Guelph study focused exclusively on herbal supplements—which comprise a $5 billion chunk of the larger supplement industry’s $30 bil.—testing 44 supplement products from 12 companies and incorporating 30 species of herbs. The findings were…well, disconcerting, to say the least.

  • Out of the 44 products, 59% were found to contain plant species not listed on their labels
  • 48% contained at least some quantity of their purported ingredients, but one third of these products also contained cheap fillers (like rice, wheat, or soybean) or contaminants
  • Substitution of the main or “dietary ingredient” of the supplement occurred in 30 out of 40 products.
  • Only two of the 12 companies had products without any contamination, substitution or fillers (but because Canadians are too nice, none of the names of companies in the study, much less the badness or goodness of respective firms, were published)

In the most egregious cases of mis-labeling, one product labeled St. John’s wort, used to treat mild depression, was just rice. Another St John’s wort bottle contained Alexandrian senna—an Egyptian herb that is a powerful laxative.

An FDA spokesperson, Shelly Burgess, told the New York Times last autumn that the FDA is finding a staggering 70% noncompliance from industry firms, and that they’re taking enforcement action against violators. On its website, however, the FDA concedes: “In that FDA has limited resources to analyze the composition of food products, including dietary supplements, it focuses these resources first on public health emergencies and products that may have caused injury or illness.” (read: tough tittie, but you’re welcome for adderall).

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On February 2nd, the New York attorney general—having conducted its own study of herbal supplements in response to the University of Guelph’s—sent cease-and-desist letters to four major national retailers: GNC, Walgreens, Walmart, and Target.

The attorney general’s study tested 24 herbal products from the four retailers, and the results were about as disheartening as the University of Guelph’s. All but five contained DNA that was either unrecognizable or came from a plant not listed on the label. Perhaps most worrisome though, another five of the 24 contained wheat and two types of legume—common allergens—without identifying them on the label.

Defenders of the Health Supplement industry and the current lack of oversight have claimed that the problems with ingredient substitution and mislabeling come mostly from fringe producers and retailers—that the problem is not systemic. However, in going after major brands at some of the countries largest retailers, the New York State attorney general has demonstrated that the problem is bigger than that.

In response to the cease-and-desist, Walgreens said it would take all of the treacherous products off the shelves nationwide, despite New York being the only state to demand that action. GNC and Walmart responded with the somewhat less encouraging promise of taking “appropriate” action, and Target offered no comment. Target was, to be fair, the least severe offender, though only three of its six products tested contained their purported ingredient, and only one of six contained the correct herb with no contaminant fillers.

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While both these studies and the subsequent legal action concern only herbal supplements in pill form, the implications for other, more proteinaceous products and the industry at large, are tremendous and upsetting, especially for the healthy consumer.

Uncle Ben was talking about Peter Parker’s budding Spider-y superpowers, not laissez faire capitalism, when he said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” But the same lesson applies to companies that make and sell products whose content is not visible to the naked eye. Consumers want to choose companies they trust, and so companies should strive to make themselves trustworthy.

Over at Exo, you have our guarantee that a cricket will always mean a cricket. And, like it or not, every bar has about 40 of ‘em. No more, no less.

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