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The truth about health supplements

Bottles with diet supplements containing the dietary supplement

Bottles with diet supplements containing the dietary supplement ephedra sit on shelves at a health product store in Watertown, Mass. (Dec. 31, 2003) Photo Credit: AP

Lining drugstore shelves across the country, nutritional and dietary supplements can be found in any number of varieties. Boasting promises of slimmer waistlines, bulked-up muscle mass and increased performance, these products are both widely used and largely unregulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Recently, both NBC News and USA Today published reports with disturbing facts about the dietary supplement industry, including the news that items currently on the shelves — diet supplements Fat Zero, Fruit & Plant Slimming and Extreme Body Slim — contain sibutramine, a prescription diet drug that was previously yanked from the U.S. market in 2010 because of its potential to damage the heart. 

How did that fact go unnoticed? Well, it’s because the legislation surrounding the dietary supplement industry is outdated and misguided.

Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (that’s nearly 20 years ago), supplements are defined as a food and not a drug, which restricts the FDA in the testing and regulation of nutritional and dietary supplements. Basically, the products do not need to be preapproved by the FDA prior to hitting the shelves.

Dr. Amy Eichner, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s Special Advisor on Drugs and Supplements, said that should be a red flag for consumers.

“Because of the way they are regulated, there is no FDA oversight or quality control prior to supplement products reaching the shelves,” she said. “Although adverse events are grossly underreported, there are reports of very serious adverse events — and deaths — from the use of supplements in the performance, weight loss, sexual enhancement and body building categories.”

Eichner added that it is “impossible” for consumers to be sure of a supplement’s safety and that “hundreds, if not thousands of sport supplements … are contaminated or spiked with synthetic steroids, stimulants and experimental chemicals that have no place in food.”

In an interview with USA Today on Tuesday, Dr. Paul Offit, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of the book, “Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine,” touched on more of the gray matter surrounding the multibillion dollar dietary supplements industry — its politics. He said it uses “lawsuits, lobbyists and legislation to protect their market.”

What does he mean by that?

This could be a part of it: According to the Center for Responsive Politics, since 1990, federal candidates and political parties have received more than $11 million in contributions from the manufacturers of nutritional and dietary supplements and those directly linked to the industry.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who drafted the 1994 legislation, has received more than $355,000, of which $85,200 was received during the 1994 election cycle

Eichner said at the time of the legislation, there were only a “handful” of vitamins and traditional medicines on the market. But since then, the industry has surged. 

“Now supplements are a 60 billion dollar industry. DSHEA is woefully inadequate to deal with the types of products currently on the market,” she said.

Rather than reaching for pills or powders to help achieve your desired results, Eichner recommends that athletes just stick to a proper diet and exercise.

“There is no magic pill, powder or liquid to help you reach your goals,” she said.


Brian T. Dessart is a nationally accredited Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, a New York State Critical Care Emergency Medical Technician and an FDNY firefighter. He can be reached at or on Twitter: @briandessart.


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