Contaminants Found in 90% of Herbal Supplements Tested


The majority of dietary supplement facilities tested were found noncompliant with good manufacturing practices guidelines.

“The U.S. public is not well protected” by current dietary supplement recommendations, an issue I explore in my video Dangers of Dietary Supplement Deregulation. Sometimes, there is too little of whatever’s supposed to be in the bottle, and other times, there’s too much, as I discussed in my video Black Raspberry Supplements Put to the Test. In one case, as you can see at 0:20 in my video, hundreds of people suffered from acute selenium toxicity, thanks to an “employee error at one of the ingredient suppliers.” Months later, many continued to suffer. Had the company been following good manufacturing practices, such as testing their ingredients, this may not have happened. In 2007, the FDA urged companies to adhere to such guidelines, but seven years later, the majority of dietary supplement facilities remained noncompliant with current good manufacturing practices guidelines.

What are the consequences of this ineffective regulation of dietary supplements? Fifty-thousand Americans are harmed every year. Of course, prescription drugs don’t just harm; they actually kill 100,000 Americans every year—and that’s just in hospitals. Drugs prescribed by doctors outside of hospital settings may kill another 200,000 people every year, but that doesn’t make it any less tragic for the thousands sickened by supplements.

Sometimes the supplements may contain drugs. Not only does a substantial proportion of dietary supplements have quality problems, the “FDA has identified hundreds of dietary supplements…that have been adulterated with prescription medications” or, even worse, designer drugs that haven’t been tested—like tweaked Viagra compounds. About half of the most serious drug recalls in the U.S. aren’t for drugs but for supplements, yet two-thirds or recalled supplements were still found on store shelves six months later.

There is also inadvertent contamination with potentially hazardous contaminants, such as heavy metals and pesticides in 90 percent of herbal supplements tested, as you can see at 2:09 in my video. Mycotoxins, potentially carcinogenic fungal toxins like aflatoxin, were found in 96 percent of herbal supplements. Milk thistle supplements were the worst, with most having more than a dozen different mycotoxins. It’s thought that since the plant is harvested specifically when it’s wet, it can get moldy easily. Many people take milk thistle to support their livers yet may end up getting exposed to immunotoxic, genotoxic, and hepatotoxic—meaning liver toxic—contaminants. How is this even legal? In fact, it wasn’t legal until 1994 with the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. Prior to that, supplements were regulated like food additives so you had to show they were safe before they were brought to market—but not anymore. Most people are unaware that supplements no longer have to be approved by the government or that supplement ads don’t have to be vetted. “This misunderstanding may provide some patients with a false sense of security regarding the safety and efficacy of these products.”

This deregulation led to an explosion in dietary supplements from around 4,000 when the law went into effect to more than 90,000 different supplements now on the market, each of which is all presumed innocent until proven guilty, presumed safe until a supplement hurts enough people. “In other words, consumers must suffer harm…before the FDA begins the slow process toward restricting [a] product from the market.” Take ephedra, for example. Hundreds of poison control center complaints started back in 1999, increasing to thousands and including reports of strokes, seizures, and deaths. Yet the FDA didn’t pull it off store shelves for seven years, thanks to millions of dollars from the industry spent on lobbying.

What did the companies have to say for themselves? Metabolife swore that it had never received a single report of a single adverse effect from any customer. “According to the company, Metabolife had a ‘claims-free history’” when in fact it had gotten 14,000 complaints from customers, but covered them up. Basically, “dietary supplement manufacturers have no realistic accountability for the safety of their products,” and the industry trade organizations have been accused of responding to legitimate concerns with “bluster and denial.” Yes, but are these criticisms of dietary supplements just a Big Pharma conspiracy to maintain its monopoly? No. Big Pharma loves dietary supplements because Big Pharma owns dietary supplement companies to dip into the tens of billions in annual sales.

Isn’t the supplement issue insane? For more, check out:

More than a hundred thousand people are killed every year by pharmaceuticals? Learn more:


What About Canned Fruit?

Food cans used to be soldered with lead compounds—so much so that people living off of canned food may have died from lead poisoning. Thankfully, this is no longer a problem in the United States. Lead contamination was one of the first priorities of the Food and Drug Administration back in 1906, before it was even called the FDA. Newspapers now have online archives going back a century so we can read about landmark historical events like “FDA Proposes Lead-Soldered Cans Be Banned” from way back yonder in…1993. So even though it was a priority in 1906, the ban didn’t actually go into effect until 1995. Evidently it was complicated because lead solder was “grandfathered” in as a “prior-sanctioned” substance.

Now that the lead is gone, though, are canned foods healthy? It depends primarily on what’s in the can. If it’s SPAM or another processed meat product, for instance, I’d probably pass.

What about canned fruit? We know fruits and vegetables in general may help protect us from dying of cardiovascular disease, and, when it comes to preventing strokes, fruit may be even more protective. But whether food processing affects this association was unknown, as I discuss in my video Is Canned Fruit as Healthy? One study found that unprocessed produce, mostly apples and oranges, appeared superior to processed produce. But that study focused mainly orange and apple juice. It’s no surprise whole fruit is better than fruit juice.

What about whole fruit when it is in a can? Dietary guidelines encourage eating all fruit whether it’s fresh, frozen, or canned, but few studies have examined the health benefits of canned fruit…until now. Canned fruit did not seem to enable people to live longer. In fact, moving from fresh or dried fruit to canned fruit might even shorten one’s life. Therefore, perhaps dietary guidelines should stress fresh, frozen, and dried fruit rather than canned.

Why the difference? While there’s no longer lead in cans these days, there is bisphenol A (BPA), the plastics chemical used in the lining of most cans. BPA can leach into the food and might counterbalance some of the fruits’ benefits. Recently, for example, blood levels of this chemical were associated with thickening of the artery linings going up to the brains of young adults. Canned fruit is often packed in syrup, as well, and all that added sugar and the canning process itself may diminish some nutrients, potentially wiping out 20 to 40 percent of the phenolic phytonutrients and about half of the vitamin C.

Maybe one of the reasons citrus appears particularly protective against stroke is its vitamin C content. It appears the more vitamin C in our diet and in our bloodstream, the lower the risk of stroke. And the way to get vitamin C into the bloodstream is to eat a lot of healthy foods, like citrus and tropical fruits, broccoli, and bell peppers. “Therefore, the observed effect of vitamin C on stroke reduction may simply be a proxy for specific foods (eg, fruits and vegetables) that causally lower stroke” risk. How could the researchers tell? Instead of food, they gave people vitamin C pills to see if they worked—and they didn’t.

This might be because citrus fruit have all sorts of other compounds associated with lower stroke risk, proving that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You can’t capture Mother Nature in a pill. It’s like the apocryphal beta-carotene story. Dozens of studies showed that people who ate more beta-carotene-rich foods, like greens and sweet potatoes, and therefore had more beta-carotene circulating in their system, had lower cancer risk. What about beta-carotene supplements instead of whole foods? Researchers tried giving beta-carotene pills to people. Not only did they not work, they may have even caused more cancer. I assumed the National Cancer Institute researcher who did this study would conclude the obvious: produce, not pills. But, no. Instead, the researcher questioned whether he should have tried lower dose pills, alpha-carotene pills, pills with other phytochemicals, or maybe multiple combinations. After all, he said, “[i]t is likely that neither the public nor the scientific community will be satisfied with recommendations concerned solely with foods…”

Check out my other videos on the can-lining chemical BPA, including:

Is fresh fruit really that healthy? See:

Is it possible to get too much of a good thing? See How Much Fruit Is Too Much?.

Now that there’s no more lead in the cans, are there any other ways we’re exposed to the toxic heavy metal? I did a whole series on lead, which you can watch. See also:

I close with yet another screed against reductionism. For more on that, see my videos Why Is Nutrition So Commercialized? and Reductionism and the Deficiency Mentality.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Concerns About Bone Broth

There are toxicological issues associated with production and processing of meat, such as the presence of various toxic contaminants—from dioxins and PCBs to cooked meat carcinogens. Carcinogenesis, the development of cancer, may be the main concern, but there are a number of other toxic responses connected with the consumption of meat products. Lead, for example, can be toxic to the nerves, gastrointestinal tract, bone marrow, and kidneys.

Where is lead found in the food supply? In general terms, the highest levels of lead, as well as arsenic and mercury, are found in fish. Sardines have the most arsenic, but tuna may have sardines beat when it comes to mercury and lead.

The problem is that “fish-consumption advisories related to human health protection do not consider the fish by-products fed to farmed animals,” like farmed fish. If some tilapia are fed tuna by-products, they could bioaccumulate heavy metals and pass them onto us when we eat them. Researchers found the highest levels in frozen sole fillets, averaging above the legal limit for lead.

Lead exposure has been shown to have adverse effects on nearly every organ system in the body. Symptoms of chronic exposure range from memory loss and constipation to impotence and depression. These symptoms present after pretty hefty exposure, though. However, we now know that “[b]lood lead levels in the range currently considered acceptable are associated with increased prevalence of gout and hyperuricemia” (elevated levels of uric acid in the blood). According to the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, a blood lead level needs to be less than 25 micrograms per deciliter to be “non-elevated.” You’d assume that at values under 25, there’d be no relationship with health outcomes, but even throughout this “acceptable” range, lower lead means lower uric acid levels and lower gout risk. So, even blood lead levels 20 times below the acceptable level can be associated with increased prevalence of gout. “These data suggest that there is no such thing as a ‘safe’ level of exposure to lead.” 

Once lead gets into the body, it tends to stay in the body. It builds up in the bones such that it may take 30 years just to get rid of half. The best strategy? Don’t get exposed in the first place.

If lead builds up in bones, though, what about boiling bones for broth? As I discuss in my video Lead Contamination in Bone Broth, we know bones sequester lead, which can then leach from the bones. So, researchers suggested that “the bones of farmyard animals will sequester lead, some of which will then be released into broth during its preparation.” Who eats bone broth? Bone broth consumption is encouraged by many advocates of the paleo diet. Online, you can learn all about purported “benefits” of bone broth, but what they don’t tend to mention is the theoretical risk of lead contamination—or at least it was theoretical until now. Broth made from chicken bones was to have markedly high lead concentrations, up to a ten-fold increase in lead. Researchers concluded, “In view of the dangers of lead consumption to the human body, we recommend that doctors and nutritionists take the risk of lead contamination into consideration when advising patients about bone broth diets.”

But what if you only use bones from organic, free-range chickens? They did use only bones from organic, free-range chickens.

For more on the paleo diet, see:

Other products contaminated with lead include Ayurvedic supplements, protein powders, wild animals shot with lead ammunition, dairy products, and tea from China:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: