The hidden truth about vitamins and supplements
Dave Gordon - Saturday, 18 April, 2015
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That bottle of ginseng in your medicine cabinet may not contain what you
think it does. In fact, it may not even contain ginseng at all...
Thanks to an investigation
by the New York Attorney General, revealed in late March, several big chain
retailers were found to have stocks of herbal supplements that had suspicious
In the crosshairs were GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart stores throughout
the state – all of whom the Attorney General allege had aisles of name brand
bottles that contained unlisted ingredients that might pose health dangers.
In GNC’s case, the bottled ginseng that was tested didn’t contain any
ginseng. Instead, it was filled with powdered rice, wheat, pine and houseplant
extracts. This is despite the federal law put into place in 1994 that requires
supplement bottles to list ingredients and their amounts.
“Many herbal products contain contaminants and fillers, and are not as
effective as they claim to be,” explains Dr. Natalie Digate Muth, national
advisor on vitamins and supplements, and medical expert at ACE Healthcare
Solutions Director in San Diego.
According to a Gallup poll, half
of Americans are taking vitamins, and the Center for Disease Control has found
that about 40 percent are taking dietary supplements.
Turning a Blind Eye
Even prior to the latest investigation, researchers from the University
of Guelph in Canada
tested 44 popular herbal supplements made by 12 companies. Researchers found
that nearly two-thirds of the products contained unlisted ingredients, and
one-third contained contaminants or fillers.
The Food and Drug Administration says that almost three-quarters of
supplement manufacturers turn a blind eye to adulteration.
Surprisingly, the law says that these manufacturers are not obligated to
prove whether their products are safe or effective. It is only when the FDA
discovers a danger with a supplement that it is pulled from the shelves.
Despite their comprising a $33 billion a year industry, “these supplements
are not tightly controlled by the FDA and there is no guarantee that you’re
getting what you think you’re getting,” explains Dr. Muth.
That’s not to say, however, that all these products should be placed under a
shroud of suspicion.
“Supplements can help cover nutrients that are not included regularly in the
diet to help prevent deficiencies that may develop,” says Joey Gochnour, a
registered dietician and nutritionist in Austin,
Texas. “The most recommended supplements
include a multivitamin, vitamin D, and fish oil.”
He concedes, though, that great care must be taken, due to the associated
problems of quality control.
Paul Thomas, registered dietician and scientific consultant with the
National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, notes that “most
people don’t get enough calcium, and supplements might help.”
That comes with the caveat that calcium may interact negatively and interfere
with the efficacy of some medications. Furthermore, he adds, caution must
be taken with niacin and vitamin B3, which in high doses can harm the liver.
Supplements, says Massachusetts-based Dr. Barry Sears, “can provide critical
nutrients the body cannot make and thus may be useful in treatment of chronic
disease.” Dr. Sears is a leading authority on anti-inflammatory nutrition and
also author of the recently published, The Mediterranean Zone.
“The two dietary supplements that have had the most robust scientific
support include omega-3 fatty and polyphenols, but usually at high
concentrations,” he reports.
“You’ve Got to be Careful”
While the idea of adding more nutrition to one’s body sounds like a good
idea in theory, all of the experts interviewed for this article have the same
takeaway: ingesting supplements randomly, or without your doctor’s knowledge,
may cause problems.
Suggestions from experts range from seeking medical approval, being mindful
of the side effects, and being aware of safety issues.
Also, they warn, beware of any product that promises it will “cure”
At a minimum, check for third-party authentication. The industry has its own
reliable set of certifications, such as NSF International, US Pharmacopeia, or
Consumer Lab seal – all identifying reputable products.
Usually, anything made outside the US
tends not to be tested for safety, or regulated, and could contain toxic
“You’ve got to be careful, because some supplements can cause a response,
some cause no response, and some can cause an adverse response,” notes Gail
Cresci, registered dietician and assistant professor of surgery and director of
surgical nutrition at the Medical College of Georgia.
People who should avoid certain supplements include: pregnant or nursing
women, because some supplements can be dangerous for the baby; patients taking
medications that can interact negatively with other chemicals; people going in
for surgery, since some supplements can cause bleeding; and those with cancer,
as some supplements can actually trigger cancer cell growth.
Georgie Fear, registered dietician and author of Lean Habits For
Lifelong Weight Loss and sports dietician for Rutgers University Athletics
in New Jersey, concurs.
“It is not uncommon for independent labs to test and discover that
supplements do not contain what is claimed on the label, or are contaminated
with potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals.”
She explains, however, that well-made supplements can help meet the
nutritional needs of people with a limited diet. For example, people with milk
allergies or lactose intolerance often don’t take in enough calcium from whole
“Women who don’t consume lots of red meat, those who are highly active
athletes and individuals on gluten-free diets are at increased risk for iron
deficiency anemia, a condition which can be prevented and cured with
inexpensive supplements,” she adds.
Supplementing, Not Substituting
But none of that means one can forgo eating the right
“Supplements and vitamins may lure a person into a false sense of security,
leading people to think it is okay to not eat vegetables or balanced meals,”
she cautions. “Consuming a well-balanced diet is the only evidenced way to
decrease risk of chronic diseases, including obesity, heart disease, and
One physician advocates eating right, in addition to taking vitamins, to
boost health. Dr. Robert L. True from Colleyville,
Texas, a former pharmacist, notes that much
of today’s food has been found to have less nutritional value than in decades
“The problem nowadays is that people may not be getting all of the vitamins
and minerals from the foods they eat that they once did,” he says. “Maybe it’s
the soil, or pesticides, but the evaluations are showing up they’re not as
Bottled vitamins, therefore, are the perfect complement for a healthy
lifestyle, he contends.
“I like the higher dose ones, because you don’t know if you’re getting an
adequate amount in the foods you eat.”
And there’s little to worry about in terms of side effects or overdose, he
asserts, except in very specific instances where supplement use is markedly
For example, taking too much Vitamin E can cause blood thinning, but Dr.
True says this is “extremely rare.”
Registered dietician Gail Cresci, while being a proponent of vitamins, warns
that high doses of vitamins A, D, E and K could build up in the body and
In the end, even seemingly innocuous vitamins sold at reputable pharmacies
and stores should come with a warning: do your research, consult your doctor,
and proceed to supplement your diet with caution.
You never know when you might be ingesting more (or less) than you think.