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The Dirty Side of Supplements

We hear bad stories about supplement quality too often.

We’re wasting $5.7 billion on vitamins we don’t need.”

Chromium in dietary supplement can convert to carcinogen, study finds.”

Dietary supplements recalled for undeclared drugs.”

US Marshals seize dietary supplements containing kratom.”

Higher monthly doses of vitamin D associated with increased risk of falls.”

To the uninitiated, a January collection of headlines like this might look like a New Year’s roundup of the rough year we just left behind.
In the supplement industry, it’s business as usual—a brand new year off to a rough start.

Some—like the upcoming Frontline expose—are familiar generalized rhetoric, and some are new findings, variations on painful dosage or spiking themes. But one piece of journalism stands out among these: Vox’s “UNREGULATED: The hidden drugs in your favorite supplements.” A familiar headline, but this time, an impressive piece of journalism far beyond the usual.

Julia Belluz and Soo Oh assembled a comprehensive database of 850 supplements that have been ‘flagged’ by authorities.

“This database is by no means exhaustive,” they write, “it only includes products that have been studied or were the subject of safety complaints.” To create the list, they compiled data from the FDA and, they say, the Department of Defense, as well as published studies from scientific journals and court documents.

“Some products in the database may have also been reformulated since they were flagged,” they concede. On the other hand, “Others that are dangerous may never have been tested. Still, it’s the most comprehensive look so far at what may lurk in your supplement bottle.”

The searchable database is also sortable by product, manufacturer, ingredient and data source, as well as groupings within ten claim categories, like appetite suppressants, muscle relaxants or sexual enhancers—with broad summaries of the drugs likely found in each category.

The database is both useful for concerned consumers, and yet another call for the industry to get out from under the “unregulated” label and move beyond voluntary transparency. The upgrade of the FDA supplement enforcement division to “office” is a move in the right direction. The CRN registry aimed at informing regulators of what is in the marketplace will be helpful too, but for now is not consumer facing.

While self-policing is not enough, it’s still better than no policing. Maybe there’s an opportunity for industry transparency efforts to be combined on a single searchable platform—the good news antithesis to the Vox database.

Until then, a good deal of industry transparency will remain in the hands of critics. A sad indictment of the supplement industry and its motives.