A line of vitamin pills on bright red background

The regulation of dietary supplements in the United States has been described as “too little, too late.” “Dietary supplements may be adulterated with dangerous compounds, be contaminated, fail to contain the purported active ingredient, or contain unknown doses of the ingredients stated on the label; be sold at toxic dosages; or produce harmful effects” in other ways. As I discuss in my video Black Raspberry Supplements Put to the Test, “[i]f the composition and quality of ingredients cannot be reliably ensured, the validity of research on dietary supplements is questionable. Moreover, the health of the US public is put at risk.”

A private, third-party company that has independently tested thousands of supplements “identifies approximately 1 in 4 with a quality problem” because it either does not contain what it says it contains, is “of substandard quality,” or is contaminated in some way.

Let’s look at an example. I’ve produced a few videos on the remarkable properties of black raspberries, including one on oral cancer. These berries can’t always be found fresh or frozen, so how about black raspberry supplements, which are available in stores and online? At 0:56 in my video, I show a bottle of Pure Black Raspberry by Pure Health, that says “Fresh – Raw – Pure” right on the label. Sounds good, don’t you think? When we look at the back of the bottle, the label says it contains only seedless black raspberry powder “and absolutely nothing else!” It’s nice to see there are no fillers or artificial ingredients, so why not plunk down $23.77 for a bottle? Well, it turns out we’ve been had.

The first clue is that the image on the front of the label is actually blackberries that had been Photoshopped to look like black raspberries. Pure Health couldn’t even be bothered to put a real image on its fake supplement! The second clue is that the “[d]ark olive-brown-black powder in [the] capsule did not look like berry powder and had a medicinal odor,” according to the researchers. So, it was put it to the test, and, indeed, there was no black raspberry at all. Instead of promoting the fact that the Pure Black Raspberry contains only seedless black raspberry powder “and absolutely nothing else,” the company should have just listed that the bottle contains “absolutely nothing” period—or, at least we hope it contains nothing. Who knows what’s actually in the capsules!

The researchers tested every black raspberry product they could find, and, even of the ones with the correct picture on the front and with powder that actually looked like it came from real black raspberries, more than a third appeared to have no black raspberry fruit at all. “At the moment, a consumer who assumes the US dietary supplement marketplace is free from risk”—or is even honest—“is unfortunately naive.”

How widespread is this deception? Researchers used DNA fingerprinting techniques to test the authenticity of 44 herbal supplements from a dozen different companies. As you can see at 2:33 in my video, less than half of the supplements were authentic and actually contained what they said they did. Most contained plants not listed on the label and product substitution, and many “contained contaminants and or fillers,” also not listed on the label. This isn’t just fraud: Some of this deception could really hurt people. For example, one St. John’s wort supplement contained no St. John’s wort at all. Instead, it was actually senna, which is an herbal laxative that “can cause adverse effects such as chronic diarrhea, cathartic colon, liver damage, abdominal pain, epidermal [skin] breakdown and blistering.” In the video at 3:09, you can see how the 12 companies did. Tested products from only 2 of the 12 companies appeared to be completely authentic, with the remaining 10 companies’ products containing filler, product substitution, and/or contaminants. Herbs only work if they’re actually present. Indeed, this study found that 80 percent of the manufacturers in the supplement “industry suffer[] from unethical activities…”.

“Until US dietary supplement products are better regulated and quality control standards for safety, purity, and dosage are defined and endorsed, the safer source for dietary phenolics,” or phytonutrients, “as a consumer is from food intake.”

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About The Author

NutritionFacts.org's picture

NUTRITIONFACTS.ORG is a strictly non-commercial, science-based public service provided by Dr. Michael Greger, providing free updates on the latest in nutrition research via bite-sized videos. There are more than a thousand videos on nearly every aspect of healthy eating, with new videos and articles uploaded every day. NutritionFacts.org was launched with seed money and support by the Jesse & Julie Rasch Foundation. Incorporated as a 501c3 nonprofit charity, NutritionFacts.org now relies on individual donors to keep the site alive.

Dr. Greger is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized speaker on nutrition, food safety, and public health issues. A founding member and Fellow of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, Dr. Greger is licensed as a general practitioner specializing in clinical nutrition. Currently he proudly serves as the public health director at the Humane Society of the United States. Dr. Greger is a graduate of the Cornell University School of Agriculture and the Tufts University School of Medicine.

His latest book, How Not to Die, became an instant New York Times Best Seller. 100% of all proceeds he has ever received from his books, DVDs, and speaking engagements has always and will always be donated to charity. Dr. Greger receives no compensation for his work on NutritionFacts.org.

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