Do You Really Know What’s in Your Supplements?
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By Fiona Riddle
Dietary supplements are often viewed as “natural” alternatives to pharmaceuticals, and because they do not require a prescription, they allow consumers to take complete agency over their own health interventions. In our modern world, it is incredibly easy to order a supplement for just about any concern and have it delivered straight to your door without much thought. Adding a scoop of superfood powder to your smoothie or taking a daily multivitamin might seem like a benign, no-fuss way to boost your health or lose a few extra pounds, and maybe it is. But how do you really know what you’re ingesting?
“…supplements are not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration before they go on the market…”
As of this year, the vitamin and supplement industry is a 39-billion-dollar industry and around half of all Americans currently take at least one dietary supplement. In order to profit off of this demand, there are countless companies promoting supplements of all kinds promising weight loss, improved sleep, better mood and enhanced cognitive function, and yet many of these products often have little to no real evidence supporting these claims. Plus, supplements are not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration before they go on the market and instead rely on reports of consumer complaints and adverse effects after they have already been distributed. This lack of regulation means that supplements are often adulterated, have misleading labels or are even completely devoid of the ingredients they claim to contain.
Mislabeling of ingredients and false promises cause numerous problems as consumers put their complete trust, and health, into the hands of dishonest companies. They may simply be wasting their money on products that are touted as having exceptional benefits when in fact there is little merit to these claims or the products. Alternatively, the ingredients may have some scientific backing but the supplement itself may not actually contain the dose listed on the label and the supplement could consequently be ineffective.
“…numerous studies have found that many supplements are either contaminated with potentially harmful ingredients or don’t actually contain the ingredients listed on the label.”
Even worse, numerous studies have found that many supplements are either contaminated with potentially harmful ingredients or don’t actually contain the ingredients listed on the label at all. A 2018 report found that “two of the three memory supplement products tested either did not contain their stated ingredients or did not contain the ingredient quantity stated on the label.” For example, a Ginkgo biloba supplement did not contain any Ginkgo biloba but instead contained unlisted filler ingredients.
“…over 700 dietary supplements contained unapproved pharmaceutical ingredients.”
A large investigation published in the Journal of the American Medical Association analyzed FDA warnings from 2007 through 2016 and found that over 700 dietary supplements contained unapproved pharmaceutical ingredients. Most often these products were marketed for sexual enhancement, weight loss, or muscle building. For example, synthetic steroids or steroid-like ingredients were found in almost 90 percent of the muscle building products tested. A handful of the dietary supplements tested even received multiple warnings from the FDA, meaning these were not one-off occurrences and the supplements were consistently, and knowingly, adulterated. In many cases, the FDA cannot force companies to stop selling adulterated supplements and can only request a voluntary recall, leaving the decision in the company’s hands.
“…about 23,000 emergency room visits in the US each year can be attributed to the use of dietary supplements.”
Unapproved or undeclared ingredients can have potentially harmful side effects for some individuals or in conjunction with other supplements and pharmaceuticals. One study found that about 23,000 emergency room visits in the US each year can be attributed to the use of dietary supplements. Once again, these products tend to fall into the category of weight loss supplements as well as energy products. Without knowing exactly what is in a supplement or how it might impact the body, consumers are unable to make fully informed decisions around their health.
Even when companies intend to create honest supplements with accurate labeling and marketing, there is still a risk of contamination from harmful toxins such as heavy metals. These heavy metals, including mercury, lead and cadmium, are naturally occurring in the earth and make their way into waterways, the food system and into dietary supplements. Protein powders are one of the most notable sources of heavy metals from dietary supplements, however they can be found in many whole food supplements as well such as turmeric powder and ashwagandha. In high levels, these heavy metals can have detrimental health effects such as kidney damage, gastrointestinal dysfunction and impaired brain development in children. Purchasing supplements tested in independent, accredited laboratories can help to ensure that they do not contain dangerous levels of heavy metals, however there is always some risk.
“While supplements can help to ensure adequate amounts of essential nutrients, they should not be considered as an alternative to a balanced diet.”
While supplements can help to ensure adequate amounts of essential nutrients, they should not be considered as an alternative to a balanced diet. Consumers are often influenced to purchase supplements based off of targeted marketing when in fact there is no real reason or need for the supplement. As their name suggests, they should be a supplement to a well-rounded diet full of nutrient dense foods including fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, meat and dairy. Before adding any dietary supplements to your routine, it is important to consult with your healthcare provider and consider your individual needs.
Fiona Riddle is a Certified Health Coach with a degree in Psychology from UCLA. She is passionate about a holistic approach to health when working with her private coaching clients. She is an avid cook, constantly creating and sharing new recipes on her Instagram (@feelgoodwithfi) to showcase simple clean home cooking. She has helped clients take their health into their own hands and successfully boost their energy and confidence through sustainable lifestyle changes. www.feelgoodwithfi.com