What’s Actually in Your Dietary Supplements? Maybe Drugs, Study Says

October 12, 2018, 11:21 PM UTC

n wide-ranging analysis, researchers studying dietary supplements that had been submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that the little pills could be big trouble. Many of these unregulated, supposed dietary aids contain prescription drugs as part of their makeup, researchers wrote in an article published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

“Potentially harmful active pharmaceuticals continue to be identified in over-the-counter dietary supplements,” they wrote.

Looking at a period between 2007 and 2016, researchers analyzed supplements tainted with pharmaceuticals. In those years, they found that one in five dietary supplements contained more than one drug ingredient. During that period, 776 supplements marketed for muscle building, sexual enhancement, or weight loss were found to contain prescription drugs, such as the stimulant ephedrine, anabolic steroids, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) commonly prescribed to treat anxiety and depression, as well as the active ingredients in erectile dysfunction drugs Viagra and Cialis, to name a few.

That isn’t a minor complication. These types of contaminations can have severe or even fatal implications for patients living with conditions such as heart disease or high cholesterol, which require medical oversight to stay healthy. Pop a pill that contains a drug that lowers your blood pressure, and if you happen to suffer from low blood pressure already, the consequences of this lack of oversight could be dire. Multiply that across most major types of managed conditions, and you can start to understand the severity of what researchers uncovered.

What’s possibly more alarming about the study, researchers say that even though these compromised supplements were submitted to the agency, the FDA often didn’t recall the tainted products, allowing them to remain on the market—and many are still on the market now.

In a commentary accompanying the article, Harvard Medical School professor and general internist Dr. Pieter A. Cohen chastised the FDA for a “dereliction of duty” as the agency responsible for regulating and ensuring the safety of consumer dietary supplements such as vitamins, minerals, probiotics, amino acids, and enzymes.

“While the FDA does not assess the safety of supplements prior to market, the agency is tasked with identifying and removing adulterated and hazardous supplements from the marketplace,” he wrote. “The FDA didn’t even bother to recall more than half of the potentially hazardous supplements.”

Dietary supplements are big business, a $35 billion industry in the United States alone. There are more than 90,000 vitamin and mineral supplements on the market, according to an article in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association.

At least 52% of American adults take at least one dietary supplement every day, and 10% take at least four. Vitamins and minerals are the most popular supplement types, many with benefits advertised to maintain health and prevent disease. It remains unclear how effective these supplements, such as Vitamin D, the subject of a recent study, are to an individual’s long-term health.