Diet and nutrition supplements, or “enhancers,” have been the subject of growing controversy in recent years, particularly as research comes to light on the harmful substances these products can contain. Due to what Consumer Reports deems a loosely regulated nutritional supplement industry, products hitting shelves are not always as safe or trustworthy as buyers might believe.
As recently as 2012, the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services issued a report highlighting the need for greater Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority and surveillance in the nutritional supplement industry. As it stands, supplements sold on store shelves are liable to contain ingredients that haven’t been tested on humans.
Researcher Pieter Cohen, an internist and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, has conducted investigations into the potential damage that these mainstream-marketed supplements can wreak on unsuspecting users.
“Supplement manufacturers are not required to prove that their products actually do what they are marketed for in humans. So these pills can be promoted for weight loss or any number of health benefits, with no real evidence backing the claims,” Cohen explained to Vox.
Supplements are not universally harmful. Rather, Cohen pointed out a systematic flaw: Manufacturers in the industry can use legal loopholes in order to include designer stimulants in their supplements. All the while, product patrons are none the wiser to the potential damage being wrought.
The problem first came to light in 2006, with the introduction of a substance called DMAA (3-dimethylamylamine, methylhexanamine, or geranium extract). In the years following, studies began to suggest that DMAA posed health risks, linking the substance acute hepatitis (see this 2013 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association) and cerebral hemorrhage (see this study in the Annals of Emergency Medicine). In 2012, the BBC reported on the death of a London Marathon runner who experienced cardiac failure as a result of exertion and DMAA complications.
In 2012, the FDA issued health warnings regarding the dangers of this “natural” stimulant, ultimately declaring the substance illegal in 2013. This came on the heels of several lucrative years for such products; NPR observes that in 2011 alone, Americans spent more than $100 million on supplements containing DMAA.
Since 2013, industry manufacturers have sought alternatives to DMAA, settling on a sister chemical called DMBA (1,3-dimethylbutylamine) — what Cohen and other researchers calls a “designer stimulant.”
A recent study led by Cohen, published in the journal Drug Testing and Analysis, noted that DMBA has yet to be tested on humans, yet it is a central ingredient in 12 dietary supplements being sold on store shelves. Because of the substance’s resemblance and shared properties with a proven killer, DMAA, Pieter Cohen aims to bring to an end to the era of DMBA before further loss of lives occur.
“There is no need to wait seven years. Here we are finding the next version of DMAA,” he told Vox.
Getting these products off shelves will be no easy task. Nutritional supplements continue to grow in popularity, having received on-air endorsements from celebrities such as Dr. Mehmet Oz (The Dr. Oz Show), reports Vox. This increasing popularity parallels a growing list of consumer injuries and illnesses traced back to supplement use. The American Cancer Society notes that such instances climb with each passing calendar year, with 1,009 reported in 2010; 2,047 in 2011; and 2,844 in 2012.
Cohen told Vox: “No consumer product should kill you. With supplements, we accept it’s okay to take these pills, even if they might lead to a heart attack or stroke. To me it’s mind boggling that we accept this.”
There are still a number of potentially harmful substances being incorporated into nutritional supplements, and these products are on store shelves now. As Cohen continues to campaign for the removal of the riskier products, he warns buyers to beware. Don’t trust everything that’s being sold to you, and research what you’re ingesting before you take those supplements.
For more information on supplements that could be detrimental to your health, consult this list of ingredients thought to have potentially serious and harmful effects, compiled by Consumer Reports.
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