Natural Supplements: What's Really In Them?

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Natural_Supplements_2Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
Introducing LadyBits, an ultra-cool collective of tech journalists who look at the world with smart, lady lenses. And since we're always in the market for the best stuff out there, we'll feature its know-how on the regular. This week, Hannah Waters breaks down the supplement game in a spotlight prepared especially for Refinery29.

Every drug store's got one: that long aisle of approximately alphabetized bottles of vitamins and various dietary supplements. You've got your standard vitamins and minerals like vitamin A or calcium. Then there are the herbal remedies, like echinacea for colds or flaxseed for cholesterol, and pills with names that you're pretty sure aren't actual words: Ubiquinol CoQH-CF, D-Mannose Powder, Chlorella, and Nattokinase. It's practically impossible to tell these pills and capsules apart based on looks alone, much less know whether what's in the bottle matches the label.

Of course, there are plenty of pills we jam down our throats that we can't identify by sight. However, unlike drugs that treat disease, which have to be approved before going on sale, dietary supplements aren't regulated until after they are on shelves; like food, they are assumed safe until they cause harm. Instead, the supplement-hocking companies themselves are responsible for making sure that their products are safe, and that their labels accurately reflect what’s in the bottles and their supposed “health benefits.” The FDA checks up on manufacturers if they get reports of illness, and they also inspect factories; but because of budget restraints, even they'll admit that the industry is not quite clean. Around two-thirds of firms are out of compliance, to varying degrees, with their good manufacturing practices that ensure quality control and cleanliness, says Dan Fabricant, director of the agency’s Division of Dietary Supplement Programs. "We haven't been shy about the fact that there are problems in the marketplace."

If you can't trust the companies marketing their powders — an industry which pulled in an easy $11.5 billion in 2012 — nor rely on the government to check up on them for you, there's only one thing to do: test them yourself. Thankfully, some researchers from the University of Guelph did the dirty work for us so we don't have to. The genetic detectives tested the DNA of 44 popular herbal supplements from 12 companies to see if the contents matched the bottle labels.

Natural_Supplements_1Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
And — shocker! — more than half (59%) of the bottles contained DNA from plants not listed on the label. Echinacea and dandelion pills contained feverfew, a bitter weed that that can cause rashes and breathing trouble for people with allergies. St. John's Wort was served with a dash of Alexandrian senna, an FDA-approved nonprescription laxative. Many others had unlisted fillers, such as soybean, rice, and wheat, packed in with the main ingredients. And, one product marketed as ginkgo was actually black walnut! These findings don’t necessarily describe foul play, but they do show that the companies aren't doing such a great job controlling their own quality.

This study is just one in a recent string of dietary supplement stings. In August, several vitamins packaged and sold by Purity First were recalled by the FDA for containing steroids. In October, the "all-natural" workout supplement Craze was found laced with a meth-like compound. Last month, the FDA recalled the weight loss supplement OxyElite Pro for being linked to more than 50 cases of non-viral hepatitis. And that's just in the past few months!

There were already many reasons to not take dietary supplements: The health claims on the label require no proof (and scientific evidence rarely backs up those claims), they use deceptive marketing, and taking them may actually do you harm. Now with this study, there's solid evidence that you aren't even getting what you've paid for. Herbal supplements may be cheaper than going to the doctor or throwing down for more expensive medicines. But, until the industry is held to a higher standard, it will continue to sell sloppily-controlled pills that prey upon the fears of unwell people.

So talk to your doctor before taking any of these supplements. And, in the words of Fabricant, remember that "if people see [health claims] that seem too good to be true, they probably are." This post was authored by Hannah Waters.

Introducing LadyBits, an ultra-cool collective of tech journalists who look at the world with smart, lady lenses. And, since we're always in the market for the best stuff out there, we'll feature its know-how on the regular.