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Hidden Dangers in Your Supplements

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

Do you take a dietary supplement? If you are like most people, you probably do. A study found that over half of American adults report taking a supplemental vitamin, mineral, enzyme, or amino acid daily. Supplements make up an industry worth over 46 billion dollars, and it is expected to grow to 298.5 billion by 2027. With such a large industry, you would expect government regulations to be very strict, but the opposite is true. The FDA does not hold dietary supplements to the same standards as pharmaceuticals. And while the FDA has the power to issue a mandatory recall of a supplement, it has only done so once. Instead, if the FDA finds a tainted supplement, it will issue a recall recommendation, which allows sellers to keep their product on the market.

Without proper governmental regulation, the consumer must take the necessary precautions to ensure they are only taking supplements of the highest quality. Below, we have compiled a list of steps you can take to guarantee you are getting real, high-quality supplements. But first, learn why is it so critical to ensure your supplements are authentic and fresh.

The dangers of fraudulent supplements

A 2015 study found that over 23,000 people go to the ER every year as a direct result of supplements. This is due to counterfeit or tainted supplements in the market. The most common additives to supplements are sildenafil (generic Viagra), sibutramine (generic Meridia for weight loss, which was linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular malfunction and has been taken off the market in many countries), and synthetic steroids or steroid-like elements. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have even been found in several types of supplements. A 2012 study found, out of 121 supplement samples, 5% of samples had arsenic levels over the safe daily consumption. 2% had excess lead, cadmium, and aluminum, and 1% had excessive mercury levels.

Unintentional intake of any type of adulterant is obviously bad. But it is especially harmful in supplements because such additives may cause bad reactions if taken with other medication. Not to mention that heavy metals have been linked to cancer, dementia, and brittle bones.

Fraudulent supplements also often contain less of the beneficial ingredients of supplements. The lack of expected nutrients in the supplement can cause you to become deficient in essential vitamins and minerals. It is crucial to ensure you have proper nutrient levels to prevent developing degenerative diseases that accompany aging, such as cancer, immune dysfunction, stroke, cardiovascular disease, and cognitive decline.

Despite the incredibly dangerous nature of selling counterfeit or fraudulent supplements, there are virtually no legal consequences for those creating or distributing the product. Counterfeiters will likely never stop creating illegitimate pills, capsules, or vitamins, it is up to the consumer to recognize the signs and stop engaging in the market. This is important not only for your own health but also to hopefully remove these companies from selling to the public.

Do not buy from Amazon

Rick Cohen, M.D., a former worker at the Food and Drug Administration and a Special Agent at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, who is now a public health advocate warns to NEVER buy supplements on Amazon or eBay. Cohen advocates against cheaply priced “supplements” online for three main reasons:

  1. Low-priced supplements are likely counterfeit and probably dangerous. There are counterfeit supplements for nearly every popular supplement on the market. These pills are made primarily in China and India. Through lab testing at the FDA, Cohen states that some cheap/counterfeit supplements contained additives and others had more than 10 times the amount of “medicinal” ingredient as indicated on the label.

  2. Many times, cheap supplements are expired that have been repackaged as new. Legitimate supplement companies often have sales on products that are soon to expire, counterfeiters will purchase the very cheaply priced pills, change the date on the packaging label, and resell them. This is especially concerning for fish oil supplements that can oxidize and have potentially harmful effects, including potentially increasing your risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

  3. Supplements on Amazon and eBay have been found to be stolen products released on the black market with no quality control. There have been many instances of criminals breaking into supplement warehouses and stealing large amounts of products to then be disturbed to other criminal fencing enterprises for merchandising purposes.

While there are legitimate companies selling supplements on Amazon, it is important to recognize that Amazon warehouses do not provide the temperature regulation necessary. Most of the active ingredients in supplements lose their potency if stored for a lengthy amount of time in high temperatures. So although the product that you are purchasing from Amazon may be valid, how it was stored may prevent you from getting the benefits.

Check the Label

Quality supplements will have a verification seal. This seal comes from the 200-year-old Pharmacopeia, known as USP. The USP is a nonprofit scientific organization with science-based standards. The mission of the nonprofit is to “establish standards of quality for drug products and dietary supplements and food ingredients.” The USP seal designates a supplement as pharmaceutical grade and is held to a higher standard than even the FDA. Only 3% of supplements meet the pharmaceutical grade requirements.

Pharmaceutical grade supplements have increased bioavailability or absorption. If the nutrient in your supplement cannot be absorbed, then there will be no benefit.

Purity is also a requirement for the USP seal. The USP supplements are thoroughly tested to be at least 99% pure. Some companies even go the extra step to contain the exact same materials used in clinical trials and studies. This is actually very important as many supplement companies point to clinical studies supporting their products but seldom use the actual ingredients used in the studies.

Don't trust over the counter supplements

It is important that you only purchase supplements from reputable sources. While CVS is now independently testing every nutritional supplement it carries in-store, such supplements are often misleading in marketing and do not contain the ingredients to yield the promised results.

Medical-grade supplements are held to much stricter standards than over-the-counter (OTC) supplements. OTC supplements have been found to contain low-quality vitamins and minerals, misleading ingredient lists, and are sometimes so packed with multivitamins that they cannot even be absorbed by the body. In 2015, the New York Attorney General released a report on common OTC supplements, they found:

  • A ginseng supplement sold at Walgreens only contained powdered garlic and rice.

  • Six different supplemental herbs tested negative for the herbs listed on their labels. Rather, these supplements contained rice, beans, peas, and wild carrots.

  • GNC supplements had ingredients missing from their labels. Such ingredients included peanuts and soybeans.

Medical-grade supplements

Only a trusted health practitioner can guarantee the highest quality, medical-grade supplements. Medical-grade supplements are held to the same standards as pharmaceutical drugs and are the only way to ensure you are receiving the proper nutrients to optimize your biochemistry. Pharmaceutical grade supplements must meet several requirements; including- they must absorb into the body within 45 minutes, all raw ingredients must pass a purity test, and every ingredient is listed on the label.

You can only get medical-grade supplements from medical practitioners. Pharmaceutical-grade supplements contain much higher quality vitamins and minerals that will have a much stronger impact on your biochemistry- for better or worse. You should not be taking medical-grade supplements without the recommendation of a Doctor to ensure no harm will be done to your body. Medical-grade supplements must be taken with the same precaution as other drugs.

The Price Tag

Medical-grade supplements have to meet the rigorous sourcing, testing, and production standards required to earn a pharmaceutical-grade label. The multiple trials and testing performed on the supplements inevitably drive up the price. Beyond the testing, the actual ingredients are of extremely high quality (used in clinical studies). These materials are usually patented by a Biopharma company and expensive to purchase.

Because USP graded supplements cost more to produce, they are more expensive. But these companies recognize the importance of providing supplements that yield the results they promise. In the long run, however, because most over-the-counter supplements contain lower concentrations of the vitamin or mineral, you will quickly burn through the bottle to get to reach the expected amount.

At the Johnson Center, we only advocate and recommended the highest quality supplements to our patients. Many of the supplements are used by Dr. Johnson herself. We would never recommend a supplement we don't trust! If you're interested in ordering supplements through the Johnson Center, contact us!


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