Research published in The Journal of the American Medical Association has confirmed what has long been hinted at — that there are a shocking number of supposedly all-natural dietary supplements currently on the market that have been spiked with hidden and potentially dangerous drugs and that these supplements have remained available years after being identified and marked for product recall. Among the unlisted pharmaceuticals the researchers discovered in supplements available for purchase were hidden steroids, ingredients akin to Viagra and Prozac, and a weight-loss drug linked with heart attacks.
The research is the latest to raise questions about the adequacy of the Food and Drug Administration's oversight of the $30 billion supplement industry. Unlike prescription drugs, dietary supplements don't require FDA approval before they are marketed. Regardless, labels must list all ingredients, and manufacturers are not allowed to sell products that are "adulterated or misbranded," according to the agency's website.
The JAMA report calls for more aggressive enforcement by the FDA, as well as increases in the agency's powers, in order to prevent supposedly all-natural dietary supplements spiked with pharmaceuticals from being marketed to consumers.
In the meantime, "consumers need to avoid the categories of supplements that these drugs are found in: weight-loss, sports supplements and sexual enhancement supplements," noted Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and one of the authors of the study. For more on this situation, check out USA Today's ongoing investigative series on supplement abuses, "Supplement Shell Game."
In a world of supplements, it is truly a "let the buyer beware" environment. The problem extends beyond these recent findings and the above-mentioned categories.
In a 2013 study conducted by researchers with the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research, the amount of vitamin D found in pills ranged from 9 to 146 percent of the amounts listed on the labels.
According to the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, an independent organization that sets standards for dietary supplements, pills should contain between 90 and 120 percent of the dose stated on the label. USP certifies supplements for companies that allow their products to be tested, a measure consumers can rely on to ensure product safety.
"There are not many manufacturers that have the USP mark, but it may be worth the extra effort to look for it," noted Dr. Erin LeBlanc, the lead author of the study. Another company that certifies supplements is NSF International.
In Cohen's study, a number of dietary supplements contained high amounts of caffeine, even though caffeine was not listed on the label.
As noted, the FDA can reprimand companies if their products do not meet requirements. Cohen's research suggests that even the minimal laws that do exist aren't being followed or uniformly enforced.
Vitamin D, the subject of the Kaiser Permanente study, works in tandem with calcium to fortify your bones, and research shows that it improves asthma and depression. Vitamin D also is said to strengthen the immune system.
It is a good thing. Yet experts warn that when it comes to vitamin D supplements, more is not necessarily better.
For decades, experts have recommended high-dose calcium supplements to prevent diseases such as osteoporosis. Vitamin D is often prescribed as a companion pill. Researchers believe that without adequate vitamin D to help absorb it, the extra calcium settles in the arteries instead of in the bones. But research has also found that when vitamin D supplementation is excessive, it can trigger extra calcium absorption. Excess calcium can cause muscle pain, mood disorders, abdominal pain and kidney stones, says Dr. Melissa Young of the Cleveland Clinic's Center for Integrative Medicine.
Young recommends trying to get your calcium and vitamin D from food. "The body absorbs and utilizes calcium better from food than from supplements," she says.
Among the best sources of dietary calcium is fat-free organic Greek yogurt. It gives you 450 milligrams of calcium per serving, plus vitamin D and protein. Two servings fulfill your calcium needs for a full day, says Young. Other sources of calcium include leafy greens such as spinach and kale, legumes and sardines.
Though it's important to get as many vitamins and minerals as you can from your food, Young believes that widespread changes in farming practices are resulting in lower nutrient content in our fruits and vegetables. "Many people still benefit from having their nutrient levels assessed and taking a high-quality daily multivitamin," says Young.
When choosing supplements and levels that are right for you, seek expert clinical help whenever possible, and always check the label for product certification you can trust.
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.