Mislabeled Supplements


IN THE CATEGORY of what to watch out for in fish oil supplements, mercury, lead and PCBS have gotten attention. But those alarms appear to have been overblown. More worrisome concerns with supplements, however, are mislabeling as well as 15 specific ingredients found in products sold everywhere—including CVS and Whole Foods, according to a list published by Consumer Reports in July, 2016 (see list below).

First, about fish oils. Testing by ConsumerLab.com of omega-3 supplements found “none to contain mercury and most to have only trace levels of PCBs (which can’t be fully avoided since PCBs are found in water everywhere).”  The conclusion: “A serving of fish is likely to contain far more contamination than supplements.”

On the other hand, ConsumerLab’s testing found that mislabeling affected “at least a third of the supplements tested. One of the products had only half the amount of DHA [along with EPA, promoted for brain and heart health], and another contained only two thirds.”

Additional testing by LabDoor of 30 top-selling fish oil supplements found that six of the products had 30% less omega-3s than listed on the packaging, and at least a dozen products had levels of DHA 14% below that listed on the packaging.

“I wouldn’t advise any fish oil pills that aren’t molecularly distilled, and I usually recommend Nordic Naturals,” notes Susan Allport, journalist and author of “Queen of Fats: Why Omega-3s Were Removed from the Western Diet and What We Can Do to Replace Them.” She adds, however, that “nutrients including omega-3s, are usually absorbed better through foods than [through] supplements.”

Risks of the 15 ingredients listed by Consumer Reports (CR), on the other hand, include organ damage, cancer and cardiac arrest. Many interact with medications such as statins and blood-thinning drugs, including aspirin. The “severity of these threats often depends on such factors as pre-existing medical conditions as well as the quantity of the ingredient taken and the length of time a person has been exposed to the substance,” according to the report.

In addition, “none of these supplement ingredients provides sufficient health benefits to justify the risk,” according to the experts assembled by CR.

Supplements are sold with no official monitoring or regulating. Between 2008 and 2011, the FDA received reports of more than 1,000 serious injuries or illnesses and 92 deaths due to dietary supplements.

“Because of the way they’re regulated you often have no idea what you’re actually ingesting,” notes Pieter Cohen, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. Cohen recently won a defamation suit brought against him by Hi-Tech Pharmaceuticals—makers, for example, of Black Widow and Yellow Scorpion taken for weight loss—for criticizing that company’s supplements, some of which are still on the market.

The 15 risky Consumer Reports ingredients can be divided into groups for easier recall based on alleged benefits. First, the five widely used by women—those not primarily for weight loss or respiratory issues—include aconite (inflammation and joint pain); caffeine powder (attention); kava (anxiety and insomnia); red yeast rice (cholesterol), and celandine (stomachache).

For weight loss: chaparral, germander, green tea extract, methylsynephrine and usnic acid.  And the rest: coltsfoot (cough, sore throat); comfrey (cough, also heavy menstrual periods); pennyroyal oil (breathing problems), and lobelia (respiratory problems). No. 15 is yohimbe for erectile dysfunction and low libido, also depression and obesity.

Over the years, some harmful supplement ingredients have been eliminated, notably anabolic steroids once found in supplements sold by a vitamin company that’s still in business, according to “If Our Bodies Could Talk,” by James Hamblin.

News reports, however, continue to warn about worrisome products.  In the first month of 2017, the New York Times reported on a study (published in the November Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine) finding “71 percent of melatonin samples were more than 10% off the stated dose, with some lots containing nearly five times the listed dose.” Another survey found the Ubervita brand contained .01 mg of melatonin, 99.8% below the label claim.

The advice is to buy only “pharmaceutical grade” melatonin—including brands such as “Just Potent,” recommended by the American Sleep Association.  And for any supplement, do research before selecting the brand—go beyond just checking for best sellers and low prices on Amazon.


Ingredient Claimed Benefits Risks 
Also called: Aconiti tuber, aconitum, angustifolium, monkshood, radix aconti, wolfsbane
Reduces inflammation, joint pain, gout Nausea, vomiting, weakness, paralysis, breathing and heart problems, possibly death
Caffeine Powder
Also called: 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine
Improves attention, enhances athletic performance, weight loss Seizures, heart arrhythmia, cardiac arrest, possibly death; particularly dangerous when combined with other stimulants
Also called: Creosote bush, greasewood, larrea divaricata, larrea tridentata, larreastat
Weight loss; improves inflammation; treats colds, infections, skin rashes, cancer Kidney problems, liver damage, possibly death
Also called: Coughwort, farfarae folium leaf, foalswort, tussilago farfara
Relieves cough, sore throat, laryngitis, bronchitis, asthma Liver damage, possible carcinogen
Also called: Blackwort, bruisewort, slippery root, symphytum officinale
Relieves cough, heavy menstrual periods, stomach problems, chest pain; treats cancer Liver damage, cancer, possibly death
Also called: Teucrium chamaedrys, viscidum
Weight loss; alleviates fever, arthritis, gout, stomach problems Liver damage, hepatitis, possibly death
Greater Celandine
Also called: Celandine, chelidonium majus, chelidonii herba
Alleviates stomachache Liver damage
Green Tea Extract Powder
Also called: Camellia sinensis
Weight loss Dizziness, ringing in the ears, reduced absorption of iron; exacerbates anemia and glaucoma; elevates blood pressure and heart rate; liver damage; possibly death
Also called: Ava pepper, kava kava, piper methysticum
Reduces anxiety, improves insomnia Liver damage, exacerbates Parkinson’s and depression, impairs driving, possibly death
Also called: Asthma weed, lobelia inflata, vomit wort, wild tobacco
Improves respiratory problems, aids smoking cessation Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, tremors, rapid heartbeat, confusion, seizures, hypothermia, coma, possibly death
Also called: Oxilofrine, p-hydroxyephedrine, oxyephedrine, 4-HMP
Weight loss, increases energy, improves athletic performance Causes heart rate and rhythm abnormalities, cardiac arrest; particularly risky when taken with other stimulants
Pennyroyal Oil
Also called: Hedeoma pulegioides, mentha pulegium
Improves breathing problems, digestive disorders Liver and kidney failure, nerve damage, convulsions, possibly death
Red Yeast Rice
Also called: Monascus purpureus
Lowers LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, prevents heart disease Kidney and muscle problems, liver problems, hair loss; can magnify effect of cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, increasing the risk of side effects
Usnic Acid
Also called: Beard moss, tree moss, usnea
Weight loss, pain relief Liver injury
Also called: Johimbi, pausinystalia yohimbe, yohimbine, corynanthe johimbi
Treats low libido and erectile dysfunction, depression, obesity Raises blood pressure; causes rapid heart rate, headaches, seizures, liver and kidney problems, heart problems, panic attacks, possibly death

Source: Consumer Reports: 15 Supplement Ingredients to Always Avoid 

—Mary Carpenter
See more posts fromWell-Being Editor Mary Carpenter.

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