Here’s an article right across the way here at Science on the contamination problems with dietary supplements. This industry, though, is set up perfectly for this kind of trouble under US law (see below), and it happens constantly. (The law also throws the doors wide open for scam artists of every kind, and we get them by the bushel basket as well).
But this new piece (by Jennifer Couzin-Frankel) is about the people who are actually putting active substances in their pills. That’s actually a step down from the people selling, say, mannitol that some backyard weed has been waved over, because some of these active compounds are a bit too active:
The report was unnerving: At least a dozen supplements sold in the United States for weight loss, enhanced brain function, and improved athletic performance contained a synthetic stimulant. The compound, which Cohen and his co-authors named DMBA, resembled methamphetamine in its chemical structure. It had never been tested in people, only in two animal studies from the 1940s. “Its efficacy and safety are entirely unknown,” they wrote.
There have been several other cases, which are detailed in the article. With our current regulatory environment, it’s pretty much up to the consumer to take his or her chances that what’s on the label is what’s in the pill – a situation that would get the legitimate pharmaceutical industry attached by pitchfork-wielding mobs (assuming enough pitchforks could be located in non-agricultural areas, of course). But “weight loss supplements” can have unapproved stimulants in them, or sildenafil (Viagra) or phenolphtalein or what have you – who knows? It’s been that way since 1994, thanks to the “Dietary Supplement Health Education Act”, which was brought to us by Senator Orrin Hatch and friends.
DSHEA established the first broad framework for regulating supplements. It also gave supplements a legal definition: as substances intended to “supplement the diet,” containing “dietary ingredients” such as herbs, botanicals, or vitamins.
At the same time, the law sharply curtailed FDA’s power. Companies were not required to notify FDA provided the dietary ingredient had a history of use before the law was passed. For the first time, DSHEA allowed them to make claims on the label suggesting supplements affected the structure or function of the body—for example, by boosting the immune system or protecting prostate health. And DSHEA codified a loose arrangement: Under the law, as FDA notes on its website, “unlike drug products that must be proven safe and effective for their intended use before marketing, there are no provisions in the law for FDA to ‘approve’ dietary supplements … before they reach the consumer.” The agency can act only after a supplement is on the market and evidence shows it’s unsafe.
It was called the “Snake Oil Protection Act” when it was passed, and time has validated that judgment. Tens of billions of dollars are spent every year on this stuff, which might be one reason why it’s been difficult to revisit this industry in Congress. The other reason is that if you do have the nerve to come out against the supplements industry, then you’re branded as a Tool of Big Pharma and an evil person who wants to keep safe, healthy, all-natural supplements out of the hands of the people who so desperately need them. (If you’d like to rail against the pharmaceutical industry, though, feel free – that’s a vote-getter). There are still emails being forwarded around about how “they” are about to make vitamins and supplements illegal – any day now! – with pretty much the same wording over the years. Far from it folks – you can sell damn near anything and get away with it for an extended period, as long as you’re *not* an actual drug company.
Take a look at the comments section to the article for a sample – there are already people there going on about how the whole thing is clearly a Big Pharma operation designed to discredit the wonderful dietary supplement business. And you can also see the way that many of these people think – that there are powerful, toxic “drugs” with lists of side effects as long as your leg, and then there are healthy, natural “herbs” that make people better with no possible side effects whatsoever.
Some of this is vitalism, the idea that there’s something mysteriously different about substances that come from living creatures as opposed to mere “chemicals”. If you can stand to listen to the Food Babe, you’ll find that her thinking is completely permeated with this worldview – things are full of “energy” if they’re extracted from a plant, but they’re “toxins” if they’re made in a lab. Some people will finesse this by saying that well, when you take these plant-derived compounds, you’re also getting all these other terrific phytonutrients, too – but that blurs the distinction between “this compound that comes from a plant” and “this dried plant mixture that has compounds in it”.
Beyond vitalism, there’s the attitude that natural = good and synthetic = bad. This especially applies to things that people are willing to put in their mouths and swallow. We humans have a pretty strong “is that food or not” evaluation system, and food is stuff that was once alive. Not stuff from some sort of factory vat. The entire dietary supplement industry is a blurring of the lines between food and medicine, and a glance down the aisles of any grocery store will show that a lot of consumers and manufacturers alike are ready to assume that there are no such lines at all. But if you treat food as medicine, you’ll also wind up treating medicine as food, with all the “ick” responses that come along with that view.
But until that 1994 is revised – and I’m not hopeful – nothing is likely to change. Those of us who are actually spending our days trying to come up with drugs for cancer can confront the spectacle of people who are convinced that we’re wasting our time. This pill from Brazil, this herb from China, this tea from the wise, wise natives of New Mexico or Nauru or Nibi-Nibi – those have the real cure. Away with your toxic chemicals!