Are Your Supplements Dangerous?


Are your supplements safe to take? |

In many cases, supplements are a perfectly fine addition to your routine and can help boost your immune system or other functions. According to Consumer Reports, Americans spent $26.7 billion on supplements in 2009, a number the University of California Berkeley estimates grew to $28 billion in 2015. Berkeley reports that there are more than 29,000 supplements on the market today, though another tally has that number as high as 54,000. And not one of them is approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Unlike prescriptions and food products, which undergo strict FDA testing, the companies who make supplements are not required to obtain the FDA’s stamp of approval before shipping them to your local grocery store. The American Cancer Society explains it another way in its whitepaper advising cancer patients about supplement use. In terms of FDA regulation, drugs are considered unsafe until proven safe to take.

Instead, the FDA requires that these companies are their own enforcers. They’re responsible for making sure the products they sell are safe and that the claims they make about their products are true. In reality, that means that a company needs to put safety and honesty above their bottom line. But more often than not, that’s a struggle. It’s why Dr. Mehmet Oz sat in front of Congress for a tongue-lashing from senators in 2014.

For its part, the FDA does maintain a page of consumer alerts and questions about recent supplement concerns. Plus, it hosts a page where doctors or people taking supplements can report an adverse side effect from taking a supplement, which in theory will prompt an FDA investigation into the substance.

Before you get to that point, however, there are plenty of ways you can still take supplements and stay safe. Here are just a few.

1. Consult with a professional

Sports Nutrition sign

Ask a professional before taking any new supplements | Tim Boyle/Getty Images

If you’re already on some prescription medication, the least you can do is ask your doctor about supplements you’re thinking of taking to make sure they won’t interact negatively with your current list of drugs. “Even helpful products can be harmful in some situations, such as when you’re pregnant or nursing, have a chronic disease, or are about to have elective surgery,” Consumer Reports reminds us. “Your doctor or pharmacist can steer you away from such problems only if they know what supplements you’re taking or plan to take.”

2. Look for verification

man pouring out pills from a supplement container with more pill bottles in the background

Choose a vitamin brand that’s verified |

When you’re choosing between two bottles of vitamin A or calcium tablets at your supermarket, choose the brand that has a “USP Verified” sticker on it. The U.S. Pharmacopeia is a trusted organization that supplement manufacturers can choose to have verify their products. “Supplement makers are all supposed to follow FDA rules, but the USP mark indicates that they choose to follow even higher quality standards,” the American Cancer Society writes.

3. Know the dosage you need

Herbal supplements

Know how many supplements you should be taking |

In many cases, more is not always better. This is especially true for supplements, as taking too much of certain vitamins and minerals can actually work against you. The recommended dosage of folic acid, vitamin C, calcium, iron, and more won’t be listed on the bottles you’re buying — you need to know that information ahead of time so you know you’re getting the right amounts. The Council for Responsible Nutrition lists 25 vitamins and minerals and the recommended daily amount you ingest, as well as the upper limits of what adults can take before they risk adverse side effects. WebMD includes another list with varying supplements.

4. Don’t buy “miracle” pills

orange-yellow pills being poured from a bottle in the shape of a C

There’s no magic supplement that will cure your ailments |

Just as Jack’s magic beans brought about more trouble than they were worth when a beanstalk sprung out of the ground, magic pills likely won’t get you the results you actually want. Consumer Reports warns about supplements that are intended to help certain issues, such as weight loss, sexual performance, and bodybuilding. These certain subcategories of supplements are especially prone to trouble and “have been problematic, the FDA said, because some contain steroids and prescription drugs,” Consumer Reports states. Unfortunately, it’s still most healthy to lose weight with watching what you eat and getting to the gym.

Follow Nikelle on Twitter @Nikelle_CS