Are Your Supplements Safe???

Did you read the recent headlines? “Spike in Harm to Liver Is Tied to Dietary Aids” (NY Times 12/21/13). In this report, you will learn the simple checks you can do BEFORE you buy any supplement to be assured of its safety.

But first some background:

Anyone that knows anything about me knows these 3 things: (1) My perspectives of health are scientifically based; after all, my first career was as a Medical Laboratory Scientist. (2) I believe in the power of supplementation because virtually none of us, myself included, eat the way we should all the time. (3) I am adamantly opposed to any additional governmental regulation of the supplement & nutrition industry.

At the outset, to some, these positions may seem contradictory. Today, I will explain why they are not and more importantly for you, how to shop for supplements and read labels to be sure you are getting a safe  product. (I’ll devote future articles to effectiveness and understanding what types of supplements might be necessary.)

So, according to the headline & the article, there’s been a sharp rise in cases involving liver toxicity; the result of contamination in ‘unproven’ supplement formulas.

Now HOW, you ask, could a scientist NOT be in favor of FDA regulation of the supplement industry in light of this? The simple answer to that is because of the history of the FDA. It’s well-known and well-documented that much like most of our public agencies, the FDA is a revolving door where big mucky-mucks from Big Pharma come in and serve on the FDA, then go back into the private sector and return again. The FDA regulators are people with vested interests in the drug companies and often even when drugs are noted to be dangerous they are approved anyway. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine several years ago showed that properly used drugs kill an estimate 104,000 people every year. Yes, you read that right: Properly Prescribed and properly administered drugs (the right drug, for the right reason, in the right dose without mitigating circumstances) STILL caused over 100,000 deaths every year in this country. By contrast, through a Google search, I could not find a single case of ANYWHERE of death caused by a reputable supplement. Yes there have been occasional issues with contamination (and that is the reason for this article) but I could find NO case anywhere where even a single person died from a supplement unless it was a contamination issue and understanding who you’re buying from eliminates almost all  the possibility of that.

So how do you assure yourself that the supplements you’re taking aren’t contaminated?

Contrary to what the media would have you believe, it is rather easy. The supplement industry is actually doing a fairly good job of policing itself. First of all, I wouldn’t necessarily go with the opinion of companies like Consumer Reports or Reader’s Digest. They are subject to their own bias and often are very medically oriented and conservative.

There are at least 2 organizations in the supplement industry whose purpose is self-regulation. Both the Natural Products Association (NPA) and the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) work with the FDA to be sure their members are adhering to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) as defined by the FDA and are also avoiding unsubstantiated claims.  GMP dictates that testing must be done to be sure products are not contaminated. Therefore, one method to use to check about product safety would be to see if a particular company is a member of either of these groups. You can find CRN’s member companies here: http://www.crnusa.org/who_omc.html   and you can find NPA’s supporters here: http://www.naturalproductsfoundation.org/index.php?src=gendocs&ref=HonorRoll  .

In addition to companies being members of organization that support appropriate practices many use independent laboratories to test and certify their products. Often products carry the symbol of their certifying lab on the label of their products. Unfortunately, due to space limitations, others don’t. This puts a little more of the responsibility on the consumer to be sure the product is safe. NSF, the National Safety Foundation, is probably the best known of these labs. NSF is a non-profit and independent organization that certifies the safety of a huge number of products across many industries. Their supplement division is the company that is responsible for certifying supplements for the Olympic Games. Basically an NSF certification means there is no measurable contamination (including herbicides, pesticides, heavy metals, bacteria, drugs, etc.) and that everything that is on the label is in the bottle in the said amount.

Because there is so much in the media about the ’dangers’ of the ‘unregulated’ supplement industry, the reputable players are anxious to belong to organizations that promote safety and efficacy and they are anxious to show the public they are safe by having the appropriate testing data available. Thus it’s a lot easier than the media would have you believe to ascertain that your product is safe. Here are the simple steps you can take: (I’m listing these in order of simplicity.)

  1. Read the label: does it have a GMP or NSF label on it?
  2.  If it’s not on the label (which it may not be due to space constraints) check their website and see what they say about quality control & their manufacturing process. Do they belong to one of the companies listed? Do they do testing?
  3. Check the website of CRN or NPA (links above) to see if the company is listed as a member.
  4. Check NSF’s website to see if the particular product is listed.
  5. If at least ONE of these doesn’t net a positive result, don’t buy the product.
  6. If you want a particular ingredient and the product/company doesn’t participate in voluntary regulation (eg. Many of the companies that advertise weight-loss supplements on TV, radio & the internet) get the product/ingredient from another (reputable) company. –I’m happy to provide you a list of the companies I use.

Using this stepwise process is not a guarantee that your product isn’t contaminated; just as buying from a well-known drug manufacturer is not. Most people reading this will remember recalls of drugs produced by Johnson & Johnson, Bayer and other big pharmaceutical companies. There are few true guarantees in life but using the cautions outlined above will greatly reduce the likelihood that you get a contaminated supplement.

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