The jack-booted thugs of the supplement industry

Continuing our look at dietary supplements, John Oliver has a quite intensive segment on the industry and its benefactors in Washington, DC (Senators Harkin and Hatch come to mind), bought and paid for by lots of lobbying dollars.

I was working in the Senate in 1993 when the supplement-crazies went nuts over proposed new federal regulations requiring supplements to, among other things, be able to prove that they were safe.

Yes, suggesting that something be “safe” before you sell it the public for their consumption, is a very controversial topic in Washington, DC.

supplements-hatch-harkinThe supplement industry got a groundswell of people calling Congress. I didn’t even work on the issue, and they were calling me. Non-stop. And it worked.

I remember at the time not feeling terribly sympathetic to the supplement industry. Personally, I like the idea of the government making sure that before someone can sell me food, it has to be proven to be, you know, actual food. Something that won’t kill me.

In the segment, Oliver cites a NYT story from 2010 showing that supplements often don’t even contain what they claim to contain.

Canadian researchers tested 44 bottles of popular supplements sold by 12 companies. They found that many were not what they claimed to be, and that pills labeled as popular herbs were often diluted — or replaced entirely — by cheap fillers like soybean, wheat and rice….

Two bottles labeled as St. John’s wort, which studies have shown may treat mild depression, contained none of the medicinal herb. Instead, the pills in one bottle were made of nothing but rice, and another bottle contained only Alexandrian senna, an Egyptian yellow shrub that is a powerful laxative. Gingko biloba supplements, promoted as memory enhancers, were mixed with fillers and black walnut, a potentially deadly hazard for people with nut allergies.

Of 44 herbal supplements tested, one-third showed outright substitution, meaning there was no trace of the plant advertised on the bottle — only another plant in its place.

The NYT found a number of concerns about fish-oil labeling as well.

Even more troubling reporting from the NYT:

Critics of the $32 billion a year supplement industry argue that the F.D.A. is hampered by a federal law that, they say, was written largely to protect the industry, the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act.

The law, which gives companies much leeway in how they manufacture and advertise supplements, allows them to put products on the market without F.D.A. approval. As a result, the agency has little power to stop tainted products from landing on store shelves in the first place, even though research suggests that adulteration and mislabeling are widespread.

1994. That would be right after the supplement industry anschluss of Congress.

And finally, I’d reported a few months ago on all those wonderful Chinese herbs and supplements, 89% of which contained banned pesticides:

Chinese herbs purchased in China

  • 74% of the samples bought in China tested positive for pesticides.
  • 50% of the samples contained traces of three or more pesticides.
  • 40% of the samples contained the residue of pesticides that have been banned in China. The World Health Organization has classified some of the pesticides as “extremely” or “highly” hazardous.
  • 32% of the samples contained 11 to 40 pesticides each.
  • Some of the poison residue was 100 to 500 times the maximum European residue limit.

Chinese herb exports to western markets

  • 89% of the made-in-China medicinal herbs bought in western countries contained three or more kinds of pesticides.
  • 72% of the samples tested exceeded the safety levels set by European authorities. (Seven samples couldn’t be tested, so the percentage could be even higher.)
  • 47% of the samples showed residues of pesticides classified as “highly or extremely hazardous” by the World Health Organization.

I’m pretty freaked about anything from China nowadays. Whether it’s dog-killing treats, or exploding watermelons.  Oh yes, didn’t you know? China had a recent problem where its watermelons were exploding like old Soviet TV sets. Apparently, farmers were overusing growth hormones, which caused the watermelons to explode:

Isn’t that special. Here’s John Oliver on the supplements (he really goes after Dr. Oz):


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  • BillFromDover

    These sham industries could not exist without a supremely ignorant, stupid and gullible populace to buy into their snake oil claims.

    Is it just possible that sometimes, we don’t/do get what we pay for.

    What we really need are fewer after-midnight advertisements and more tornadoes.

  • Guest

    Good points. People should choose medications and supplements the old-fashioned way: watch for the Big Pharma ads and buy what they tell you. Hey, what could possibly go wrong?

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  • Tone

    The whole money talks culture has risen to crazy new levels. A few years ago the Canada Food Guide was being updated and CBC chronicled the lobbying from various food industries that went on behind the scenes. Egg, milk, and grain concerns lobbied for an increase in the recommended number of their food group per week, stuff like that. And Health Canada LISTENED to them, courted them, held meetings with them, and so on. Because of campaign donation and spending limits in Canada it isn’t as easy for lobbyists to grease the palms of politicians, but they have other ways. Money and influence trumps good science, and that is a shame.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Martinis have a definite upside.

  • nicho

    Neither are martinis, but I suffer.

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    There’s another similarity in that many of the people who buy into them will defend them to the death – absent any rational thought. I’m juts amazed we haven’t had as many people with similar responses defending the supplement industry as those back on the earlier vaping threads. When there are so many parallels between the two industries that it’s almost sad to even consider.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Yep, that was the study I saw. Which was then backed up by several others.

    Actually it’s worse than merely “very expensive urine.” Apparently the metabolites and stomach-acid breakdown products from these multivitamins and mineral supplements aren’t good for the liver and kidneys either.

  • nicho

    Vitamins just give you very expensive urine.

  • bkmn

    It’s a shame that this multi-BILLION dollar a year industry has gotten along with no oversight this long. Even last year when I was in the hospital for a knee replacement I was prescribed a daily vitamin by my medical team.

    Now with the reviews that you aren’t even getting what you thought you paid for people need to wise up.

  • Hue-Man

    Comparing the supplements industry to the tobacco cartel is eerily accurate. Heavy advertising. Political lobbying. Compromised retailers (imagine a pharmacy without the rows of shelves without supplements, read PROFITS). Political contributions. Scientific research denigrated by the industry. No regulation. etc.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Up until a few years ago, I’d had this long-standing thought, “Gee, I should take multi-vitamins.” Occasionally I did, but more often I forgot…but always at the back of my mind was the presumed notion that I should.

    Then I saw the studies and now I’m glad I saved my money for all those years.

  • Hue-Man

    The announcement from December, 2013, changed my behavior:

    “The new studies, published today (Dec. 16) in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine —including two new clinical trials and one large review of 27 past clinical trials conducted by the U.S. Preventive
    Services Task Force — found no evidence that taking daily multivitamin and mineral supplements prevents or slows down the progress of cognitive decline or chronic diseases such as heart diseases or cancer.” http://www.livescience.com/42001-case-is-closed-multivitamins-are-a-waste-of-money-doctors-say.html

    (I don’t know the website, it’s the first one I came across.)

  • bkmn

    Sounds like we are pretty much in agreement John. I said the same thing in response to Dr. Thoma’s piece today:
    http://americablog.com/2014/06/need-chat-supplements.html

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