Contaminated Supplements: What to Tell Patients

Gerald Chodak, MD


February 26, 2015

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Hello. I am Dr Gerald Chodak, for Medscape. This week I want to talk about over-the-counter supplements because of a story in TheNew York Times[1] that reported an investigation by the New York State Attorney General's office.

For this investigation, the Attorney General authorized an analysis of a number of nutritional and herbal supplements sold at GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart. This analysis found that the products usually did not contain the product listed on the bottle or they contained fillers or other contaminants that were not listed as ingredients.

This is a serious problem for several reasons, not least that consumers are spending money for a certain product (that may or may not be helpful to them) when, in fact, that is not the product at all. Consumers should be outraged at the lack of oversight of this entire industry, because without some form of oversight, patients and consumers will not be protected from this fraudulent activity.

The investigation included some but not all of the supplements offered at these stores. We can only assume that a similar investigation of other products would yield similar findings. That was the case in 2013 when another investigation revealed fraudulent activity involving many of these products.[2]

On a related note, the Federal Trade Commission has won a case against POM Wonderful because of fraudulent advertising claiming cardiovascular and cancer benefits for people taking their product when, in fact, there were no good data to support that.

What's the Harm?

These fraudulent activities are serious problems on multiple levels, as I have previously discussed.[3,4,5] When patients tell the clinician that they are taking some of these supplements, the clinician cannot know whether there may be an interaction with conventional medications patients are taking, especially when some of the supplements' ingredients are not listed. Moreover, very little investigation has ever been done to know what kinds of interactions occur. The supplement could decrease or increase absorption of a conventional medication leading to reduced activity or more adverse effects.

The public should be clamoring for some form of regulation so that everyone is protected. It is unfortunate to see these companies selling products that are not what they say they are and with false advertising. There is no protection and no way to stop the practice without some form of regulation.

For now, we should remind individuals and consumers that if they are purchasing and using these over-the-counter supplements, they should be aware that many do not contain the herbal product they are said to contain. In the end, something needs to be done to change this conduct; otherwise, this industry will continue to remain unregulated and consumers will be getting the short end of the stick.

I look forward to your comments. Thank you.


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