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Scam alert: What's really in the supplements you take?

Authorities find fraudulent ingredients

Created date

March 26th, 2015

The idea that a pill or a powder can make you stronger, leaner, or healthier fuels a $61 billion a year industry. That’s how much Americans spend on over-the-counter supplements like fish oil, vitamins, and protein powders. 

Some people swear by the heath benefits of herbs like echinacea to ward off colds or St. John’s wort to ease depression. Bodybuilders chug down protein and creatine to fuel muscle growth and fat loss. And with $1.2 billion in sales in 2013, fish oil tablets—promoted as enhancing heart and vascular health—are among the nation’s best-selling supplements. 

While the benefits of taking supplements remains an open question for scientists and physicians, one fact is clear. Taking supplements that are labeled as one thing but contain another is fraudulent, not to mention dangerous.

What’s in the bottle?

A study of the 30 top selling fish oil supplements conducted by LabDoor found that 20% had lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids than advertised. 

More seriously, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that Oxy ELITE Pro Super Thermogenic, a fat loss product marketed by USPLabs, contained fluoxetine, or Prozac, a prescription drug used to treat depression. Another USPLab product, Jacked3, contained a dangerous amount of the stimulant DMAA, which when combined with caffeine or other stimulants, has been known to elevate blood pressure and cause shortness of breath or even a heart attack. 

Why are dangerous or ineffective supplements on the shelves to begin with? The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, a federal law passed in 1994, allows supplement companies to bypass the strict approval process drugs go through before making it onto store shelves. It also allows supplement companies to make general health claims about their products without the need to prove those claims are legitimate.

While the FDA has authority over the supplement industry, they do not routinely test and evaluate supplements unless there are complaints or a pattern of dangerous reactions. In essence, the industry operates on an “honor code.” 

New York investigation

In February, authorities from the New York State’s Attorney’s office had the content of store brand herbal supplements sold by Target, Walgreens, Walmart, and GNC analyzed. In four out of five cases, the supplements tested did not contain any amount of the herb listed on the label. 

What they did contain was everything from ground-up houseplants to rice powder to asparagus, wild carrots, and powdered legumes. These mystery ingredients were not listed on labels, posing a threat to those with allergies. 

“This investigation makes one thing abundantly clear: the old adage ‘buyer beware’ may be especially true for consumers of herbal supplements,” says Eric T. Schneiderman, the New York state attorney general. “Mislabeling, contamination, and false advertising are illegal. They also pose unacceptable risks to New York families — especially those with allergies to hidden ingredients.” 

Arthur P. Grollman, M.D., professor of pharmacological sciences at Stony Brook University, says the study uncovered the “outrageous degree of adulteration in the herbal supplement industry.” He also applauds the removal of those products from store shelves “as they can cause serious harm to consumers unaware of the actual ingredients in the pills and capsules they ingest. Hopefully, this action can prompt other states to follow New York’s example and lead to the reform of federal laws that, in their current form, are doing little to protect the public.”

So while legislators may soon find a call to action when it comes to standards and testing for nutritional supplements, consumers must be vigilant about what they buy and what they take.

How do you know what you’re buying?

“The evidence for these herbs’ effectiveness is sketchy to begin with,” says David Schardt, senior nutritionist of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “But when the advertised herbs aren’t even in many of the products, it’s a sign that this loosely regulated industry is urgently in need of reform. Until then, and perhaps even after then, consumers should stop wasting their money.”

To help consumers make sound choices when purchasing supplements, some manufacturers have their products and their facilities tested by independent, nonprofit groups. 

The United States Pharmacopeial Convention ( is a scientific, nonprofit organization that tests supplements. Its mark of approval indicates that a dietary supplement has met the organization’s strict verification program. 

NSF International (, another nonprofit testing agency, verifies that what is listed on a supplement’s label is actually in the bottle and that there are no harmful levels of specific contaminants. The agency also audits the supplement’s manufacturing facility. 

The NSF seal on a supplement label means the product has passed the organization’s review. The NSF Sport seal means that the product has also been screened for more than 200 athletic banned substances.

Two websites, and, also test and analyze supplements and make the results available to the public. 

Beware, however, because if unethical manufacturers have no qualms about selling ground-up houseplants instead of echinacea or mixing dangerous and illegal stimulants into nutritional products, they are unlikely to lose sleep over fabricating a seal of approval and affixing it to their products’ label. Before you take a supplement, check the websites mentioned above.