Beware of Supplements!

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Staff Journalist

A new report published today found that many popular dietary supplements contain ingredients that may cause cancer, heart problems, liver or kidney damage.

Fox News is reporting that a report published by Consumer Reports has identified 12 supplement ingredients that could be dangerous: aconite, bitter orange, chaparrral, colloidal silver, coltsfoot, comfrey, country mallow, germanium, greater celandine, kava, lobelia, and yohimbe. These ingredients could cause liver and kidney damage, heart rhythm disorders and unhealthy blood pressure levels.

The problem is that many of these contaminated products sport a “natural” label that lure many into believing they’re safe.

“Of the more than 54,000 dietary supplement products in the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, only about a third have some level of safety and effectiveness that is supported by scientific evidence,” the report reads.

This is a huge problem for Americans who consumed more than $26 billion worth of supplements in 2009 according to the Nutrition Business Journal.

“Supplements are marketed with very seductive and sometimes overblown sales pitches for increasing your performance in the bedroom, slimming down, or boosting your athletic prowess,” said Nancy Metcalf, senior program editor for Consumer Reports. “However, some natural ingredients can be hazardous, and on top of that the FDA has repeatedly found hazardous ingredients, including synthetic prescription drugs, in supplements.”

One of the problems cited in the report is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) lack of power when it comes to regulating supplements, and the infrequent use of the power it does have.

For instance, it has yet to inspect any of the supplement factories in China where many of these supplements are produced, even though the agency set up field offices there two years ago.

Consumer Reports is also critical of the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) which it says is “industry friendly” and prevents the FDA from regulating supplements as rigorously as it regulates prescription medications.

Problems with supplement safety are not new. Earlier this summer, Consumer Reports tested 15 varieties of protein supplement drinks and found that some contained heavy metals that could prove harmful to frequent drinkers. Some of the metals found include cadmium, lead, mercury, and arsenic – all of which can affect the function of vital organs.

The popular supplement, echinacea, taken by many to boost the immune system, has been found to produce a side effect known as immunosupression, a condition that suppresses the immune system.  This can occur as soon as eight weeks after taking the supplement and could leave a person unable to fight off infections or illnesses.

Chondroitin, a supplement used by many to treat the swelling and pain associated with osteoarthritis, has been known to thin the blood  and cause bleeding problems in patients.

The  supplement known as ephedrine, a stimulant found in a variety of weight loss and energy boosting products, has been found to harm the central nervous system and the heart. Its harmful effects range from dizziness, headaches, and stomach aches to heart attacks, strokes, seizures, and death. So far, more than 600 reports of injuries and 17 deaths linked to ephedrine products have been recorded in the U.S.

These examples are just a few on a long list of other problems that have prompted experts to urge the FDA to ask Congress for more power to regulate supplements.

Until then, consumers need to be aware that dietary supplements remain so loosely regulated that a manufacturer can legally print anything it wants on a product label without any fear of prosecution.

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