Placebos and Hidden Drugs: The $37 Billion US Dietary Supplement Industry Exposed

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Revelations that the wife of a prominent California congressman died after taking a herbal remedy for diabetes and weight loss have shed light on the US dietary supplement industry and whether its products are beneficial, even safe.

Last month it emerged that Lori McClintock, 61, wife of Republican Tom McClintock, died of dehydration and bloated stomach after eating white mulberry leaves, which are widely sold as teas and capsules of “superfoods”.

The tragedy lifted the veil on a multi-billion dollar industry selling everything from vitamins and herbal remedies to diet, bodybuilding and sexual enhancement products, aimed at people seeking to improve their health, their appearance and love life.

Celebrities got in on the action, with promotions led by everyone from Khloé Kardashian to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and actress Gwyneth Paltrow – whose DTF capsules sell for $60 a bottle as a boost for “sexual arousal and desire”.

But the adverse reaction from McClintock and tens of thousands of others each year raises fears of poor oversight from an industry that often makes bold and unsubstantiated claims about the effectiveness of its pills, potions and powders.

A growing body of evidence suggests that, at best, even basic vitamin pills offer no discernible health benefit. While many other supplements are also placebos, some contain impurities and even hidden medical-grade drugs that cause real harm.

“The majority of supplements sold will not benefit consumers in any way they might imagine based on the advertising claims on the bottle,” Dr Pieter Cohen of the Cambridge Health Alliance told DailyMail.com.

“Unless you’ve specifically talked to a doctor about it, the advice is: be careful.”

Nearly nine out of ten people take a supplement, according to The Harris Poll. The number of users has increased by 29% during the pandemic as people gobbled up everything from vitamin C to echinacea and turmeric supplements in hopes of boosting their immune systems.

Research firm IBISWorld valued the U.S. supplement industry at $37.2 billion this year, though estimates vary widely, with some as high as $55 billion, in part because some key data sources, such as Amazon’s online sales are not available.

Northwestern Medicine scientists in June became the latest team to talk about health supplements. In a monstrous review of 84 other studies, they concluded that vitamin pills did nothing to improve users’ chances of heart disease or cancer.

Dr Jeffrey Linder said there is no ‘magic set of pills’ to improve health, called most products a ‘waste of money’ and urged health-conscious people to focus on proven methods like eating well and exercising.

“If it was really good for you, we would know by now,” Dr. Linder said. He offered a key caveat – pregnant women, who should take folic acid and other prenatal vitamins to support the development of their unborn child.

Another mega-study conducted by the University of Sydney in Australia last year evaluated 121 diet pill trials covering 10,000 adults, containing everything from green tea to crab shell extract and ephedra, a stimulant with claimed metabolism-accelerating properties.

The vitamins and supplements aisle in a Walgreens drugstore drugstore in Miami Beach, Florida

The vitamins and supplements aisle in a Walgreens drugstore drugstore in Miami Beach, Florida

Lori McClintock, 61, died of dehydration and stomach inflammation after eating white mulberry leaves, a weight loss supplement

McClintock, wife of Republican Tom McClintock, died of dehydration and stomach inflammation after eating white mulberry leaves, a weight loss supplement

Lori McClintock, 61, wife of Republican Tom McClintock, died of dehydration and stomach inflammation after eating white mulberry leaves, a weight loss supplement

The various pills, powders and liquids were safe enough for “short-term consumption,” said Erica Bessell, dietitian and lead study author, but would not “produce clinically meaningful weight loss.”

More disturbing, however, is the evidence of harmful supplements.

The next issue of Complementary Therapies in Medicine will feature a review of Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine products believed to treat colds and flu, many of which contain toxic heavy metals like lead, arsenic and mercury.

Last month, researchers at the University of Miami discovered similar contaminants in cannabidiol (CBD) edibles. Of the 121 products tested, about a third contained mercury, arsenic or lead and 8% contained cadmium, which is linked to kidney and lung disease.

Dr. Cohen and his colleagues discovered last year that nine of 17 weight loss and sports supplements they tested contained deterenol, a stimulant not approved for human use.

Some contained up to four experimental stimulants, risking everything from nausea and vomiting to sweating, restlessness, palpitations, chest pains and even heart attacks.

Of the products that have been pulled from the shelves in recent years, about two-thirds contained pharmaceutical-grade drugs like Viagra and the weight-loss drug Meridia, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.

These drugs are effective, but are supposed to be prescribed by a doctor, not slipped into compound cocktails, and sold, mislabeled, in health food stores or online. Often the ingredients are produced cheaply in China.

Products aimed at amateur athletes have taken their lives, including otherwise fit and healthy Claire Squires, who died 30 miles from the finish line of the 2013 London Marathon after taking the now banned Jack3d product, which contained the stimulant DMAA.

American branded health and nutrition products, General Nutrition Centers, have become an international brand, with outlets as far away as Hong Kong

American branded health and nutrition products, General Nutrition Centers, have become an international brand, with outlets as far away as Hong Kong

Supplements marketed for weight loss, muscle building, and sexual enhancement can often include stimulants and other hidden ingredients that are detrimental to health.

Supplements marketed for weight loss, muscle building, and sexual enhancement can often include stimulants and other hidden ingredients that are detrimental to health.

Such deaths are rare, but disturbing heart palpitations are all too common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that at least 23,000 people end up in US emergency rooms each year after taking weight loss, bodybuilding, sexual enhancement or other products each year.

Dietary supplements are loosely regulated by the government’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means manufacturers don’t have to scientifically prove the products they market are safe before consumption.

There are big misconceptions about the industry — 49% of adults believe dietary supplements have been rated as safe and effective by the FDA, and only 47% consult their doctor before taking one, according to The Harris Poll.

Although there are regulations, Dr Cohen says the FDA is “completely overwhelmed” and has largely “given up” playing Whack-a-Mole in a growing market increasingly driven by online sales of new products from a changing list of manufacturers.

The FDA has issued just three product recalls this year, including for Artri Ajo King joint supplements sold at Walmart, which contained the hidden drug diclofenac, a painkiller and anti-inflammatory that can increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. ‘stroke.

Dr. Cohen’s latest study in July portrays the FDA as a toothless tiger. Its warning letters are largely ignored — nearly a third of the products studied were still being sold online six years after the FDA warning letters were sent.

Lawmakers are closing the gap. The California state legislature last month passed a bill banning the sale of over-the-counter diet pills and diet supplements to children, noting that they were frequently mixed with banned laxatives and stimulants.

Lawsuits are happening — Aaron Singerman, the founder of Florida sports supplement maker Blackstone Labs, was sentenced to 54 months in prison in January for putting controlled substances in his blends — but are barely tracking the scale of the problem.

“We need a system that stops blatantly illegal products from reaching consumers in the first place, not a system that waits for people to get sick and then slowly springs into action,” Dr Cohen told DailyMail.com.

Still, Daniel Fabricator, president and CEO of the Natural Products Association, a trade group, defends what he calls a “very well-regulated” industry, saying the estimated 23,000 ER admissions represent an overrun of about 20,000.

The manufacturer mentions a series of studies showing the effectiveness of products ranging from probiotics to fish oils, fiber supplements and certain herbs. He notes that folic acid is recommended for pregnant women and the needs of an increasingly obese and vitamin-deficient population.

“Nearly 80% of the country safely uses a supplement every day,” Maker told DailyMail.com.

“The main reason for use is that people eat horribly these days with all the demands of their time. We are overnourished and undernourished. There are still food deserts in industrialized countries. Where will nutrition come from?

Highly concentrated omega-3 essential fatty acids.  The Natural Products Association says fatty acids are among the supplements known to benefit health

Highly concentrated omega-3 essential fatty acids. The Natural Products Association says fatty acids are among the supplements known to benefit health

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