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:

 
 
 

The Best Food for Acne

We hear a lot about traditional Chinese herbal medicine, but less about the herbs used in Japan. There is a root called Rhizoma coptidis that appears to have similar anti-acne activities to drugs like Accutane, a drug infamous for its side effects that has been since pulled from the market. But there are side effects to the root, too. A poor fellow took it to clear up his skin and as you can see in my video, let’s just say it made things  worse.

The anti-acne active component of the root is thought to be berberine. Is there any way to get the active ingredient in a safer plant? Yes, apparently: barberries, which I cover in my video Treating Acne with Barberries. You may remember barberries as being perhaps the most antioxidant-packed dried fruit available (see my video Better Than Goji Berries). You can find them cheap at Middle Eastern grocers, since they’re used to make a signature Persian rice dish. Their taste is described as “pleasantly acidulous,” which is just doctor-speak for sour. I love sprinkling them on my oatmeal just because I love their taste, but, evidently, they have played a prominent role in herbal healing for thousands of years around the world. They have been described rather flamboyantly in a pharmacology journal as an “herbal remedy [that] has no match in serving the human race.” And I just thought they were kind of tangy.

The problem with the herbal medicine literature is that there is often a long, impressive list of traditional uses, but little or no science to back them up. And what does exist is often either test tube or animal data that has questionable clinical applicability. Who cares, for example, if barberries “induce menstruation in a guinea pig” (except maybe the guinea pig)? So, you end up with drug companies injecting herbs into the penises of rabbits in hopes of coming up with the next Viagra, but they conduct few, if any, human studies.

I’ve seen petri dish studies over the years suggesting anti-cancer effects of barberries on human tumor cells in a petri dish or having anti-acne effects on hamsters, but there weren’t any such human studies… until, now.

Evidently, there had been anecdotal reports of acne clearing up after barberry juice consumption, so researchers decided to put it to the test in a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial of fifty 12- to 17-year-olds with moderate to severe acne. Half got a sugar pill, and the other half got the equivalent of about a teaspoon of dried barberries three times a day for a month.

The results were remarkable. After four weeks on the placebo, as expected there was no change. The teens had just as many pimples as before. But in the barberry group, there was a 43 percent drop in the number of zits and about a 45 percent drop in the number of inflamed zits. That’s extraordinary. A spoonful of dried barberries costs about eight cents. Barberries have no reported side effects, and they are healthy for you anyway. The only potential concerns I could find were about eating them during pregnancy, and we don’t have good data on barberry consumption during lactation, so it’s best to stay away from barberries during breastfeeding as well until we know more.


For more on acne check out these older videos:

And a few new ones I just released this year:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

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