Cause for Caution with Dietary Supplements

Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!

I can’t help but think of that famous line from the Mel Brooks movie Blazing Saddles when I read about the attitude of the dietary supplement industry. Although they might paraphrase it as “Regulation? We don’t want no stinkin’ regulation!

According to a recent article in The New York Times, dietary supplements account for nearly 20 percent of drug-related liver injuries that turn up in hospitals, up from 7 percent a decade ago. The F.D.A. estimates that 70 percent of dietary supplement companies are not following basic quality control standards that would help prevent adulteration of their products. Of about 55,000 supplements that are sold in the United States, only 170 — about 0.3 percent — have been studied closely enough to determine their common side effects, said Dr. Paul A. Offit, the chief of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and an expert on dietary supplements.

“It’s really the Wild West,” said Dr. Herbert L. Bonkovsky, the director of the liver, digestive and metabolic disorders laboratory at Carolinas HealthCare System in Charlotte, N.C. “When people buy these dietary supplements, it’s anybody’s guess as to what they’re getting.” (From The New York Times)

The worst of the liver-damaging supplements seem to be herbal pills and powders that promise to increase your energy and help you lose weight, and bodybuilding supplements that contain steroids (without listing steroids on the label). For these reasons, the people most harmed are middle-aged women who struggle with weight loss, and young men trying to perfect their physiques. In one study of 85 patients with liver injury linked to herbal weight-loss supplements, two-thirds were women in their 40s and 50s. About a dozen of the women required liver transplants, and three of the women died. That’s a mighty high cost for trying to lose a few pounds.

While scientists are still trying to determine which of the supplements are causing the injury (many of the patients were taking multiple herbal supplements), a frequent product used by the patients was green tea extract.

The problem is that supplements are not well regulated by any agency, and therefore they market their products without listing ingredients on the label, or even to testing for safety or efficacy. One study by Canadian researchers tested 44 bottles of popular supplements sold by 12 companies. They found that many were not what they claimed to be, and that pills labeled as popular herbs were often diluted — or replaced entirely — by cheap fillers like soybean, wheat and rice. (From “Herbal Supplements Are Often Not What They Seem“) Of the supplements tested, one-third contained no trace of the herbal product listed on the label.

Another study found that some bottle of black cohosh–a remedy for hot flashes–did not contain any black cohosh, but did contain Actaea asiatica, which can be toxic.

According to another New York Times article, in 2008, two products were pulled off the market because they were found to contain around 200 times more selenium (an element that some believe can help prevent cancer) than their labels said. People who ingested these products developed hair loss, muscle cramps, diarrhea, joint pain, fatigue and blisters.

What to Do

People who take dietary supplements are usually health-conscious individuals who truly want to improve their health. According to an opinion article by Dr. Paul A. Offit, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia:

They can look for “U.S.P. Verified” on the label — this proves the supplement has been inspected and approved under the United States Pharmacopeial Convention. Unfortunately, fewer than 1 percent of the 55,000 or so supplements on the market bear this label. The real answer is that, until the day comes when medical studies prove that these supplements have legitimate benefits, and until the F.D.A. has the political backing and resources to regulate them like drugs, individuals should simply steer clear.

For too long, too many people have believed that dietary supplements can only help and never hurt. Increasingly, it’s clear that this belief is a false one.

If you believe you have been injured by a medication or herbal supplement and want to discuss your legal options, feel free to call HensonFuerst Attorneys at 1-800-4-LAWMED, or visit our website at for an online request for information. If you have questions, HensonFuerst has answers.

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