Consumer Reports Issues List of Potentially Dangerous Supplements

Jennifer Warner

April 02, 2004

April 2, 2004 — Despite known hazards, many potentially dangerous dietary supplements are readily available for purchase in stores and on the Internet, according to a new report in the May issue of Consumer Reports.

The magazine released yesterday its "dirty dozen" list of dietary supplements that it says are too dangerous to be on the market.

The list includes yohimbe, bitter orange, chaparral, and andro to name a few. But researchers say the supplements are sold under many names, which makes it hard for consumers to know what they are getting.

Many of the supplements that made the list have already been banned in other countries. But researchers say regulatory barriers created by Congress have prevented the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from taking similar actions to protect consumers in this country.

The announcement coincides with a report on supplement safety issued yesterday by the Institute of Medicine, which suggests that the FDA should take action against potentially hazardous dietary supplements and asks Congress to ease restraints on the agency.

Dirty Dozen of Dietary Supplements

Researchers from the consumer magazine say that the supplements that made its list may cause cancer, severe kidney damage, heart problems, or death.

For example, they report that the herb aristolochia has been conclusively linked to kidney failure and cancer in China, Europe, Japan, and the U.S. Yohimbe, a supplement marketed as a sexual stimulant and an herbal Viagra, has been linked to heart and respiratory problems.

Many of these dietary supplements are sold in both single and combination products marketed for a wide variety of uses, from building muscle and losing weight to easing stress and arthritis pain.

The researchers divided the list into three categories based on the amount of available evidence about the dietary supplement: definitely hazardous, very likely hazardous, and likely hazardous.

Because the brand names of the products containing the dangerous ingredients vary widely, researchers say consumers should read ingredient labels carefully and look for the following:

Definitely Hazardous

  • aristolochic acid ( Aristolochia, birthwort, snakeroot, snakeweed, sangree root, sangrel, serpentary, wild ginger)

Very Likely Hazardous

  • comfrey ( Symphytum officinale, ass ear, black root, blackwort, bruisewort, consolidae radix, consound, gum plant, healing herb, knitback, knitbone, salsify, slippery root, symphytum radix, wallwort)

  • androstenedione (4-androstene-3, 17-dione, andro, androstene)

  • chaparral ( Larrea divaricata, creosote bush, greasewood, hediondilla, jarilla, larreastat)

  • germander ( Teucrium chamaedrys, wall germander, wild germander)

  • kava ( Piper methysticum, ava, awa, gea, gi, intoxicating pepper, kao, kavain, kawa-pfeffer, kew, long pepper, malohu, maluk, meruk, milik, rauschpfeffer, sakau, tonga, wurzelstock, yagona, yangona)

Likely Hazardous

  • Bitter orange ( Citrus aurantium, green orange, kijitsu, neroli oil, Seville orange, shangzhou zhiqiao, sour orange, zhi oiao, zhi xhi)

  • Organ/glandular extracts (brain/adrenal/pituitary/placenta/other gland "substance" or "concentrate")

  • Lobelia ( Lobelia inflata, asthma weed, bladderpod, emetic herb, gagroot, lobelie, indian tobacco, pukeweed, vomit wort, wild tobacco)

  • Pennyroyal oil ( Hedeoma pulegioides, lurk-in-the-ditch, mosquito plant, piliolerial, pudding grass, pulegium, run-by-the-ground, squaw balm, squawmint, stinking balm, tickweed)

  • Scullcap ( Scutellaria lateriflora, blue pimpernel, helmet flower, hoodwort, mad weed, mad-dog herb, mad-dog weed, quaker bonnet, scutelluria, skullcap)

  • Yohimbe ( Pausinystalia yohimbe, johimbi, yohimbehe, yohimbine)

Experts advise about the importance of asking patients about any supplements they may be taking. Not only do many supplements have significant adverse effects, they may also interfere with the effectiveness of many prescription medications, including birth control pills.

Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

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