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Blind Faith: Dietary Supplements Exposed

The number of health problems that are tied to dietary supplements tripled in the past 5 years. The occurrence of unreported problems surely is higher. Regulation of the industry has stagnated, and experts believe that it will remain that way for years to come.

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Bodybuilder Mike Jenkins was one of the strongest men in the world. In professional competitions, he wowed audiences by pulling semitrailers, hoisting sequoia-size logs and heaving 500-pound boulders. However, Jenkins, who stood 6 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed about 400 pounds, was no match for dietary supplements.

On Thanksgiving 2013, his wife found him dead in his sleep at age 31. Toxicology tests revealed that he died of a lethal combination of anabolic steroids and the “natural” muscle-building stimulant dimethylamylamine (DMAA). According to Graham Hetrick, who is the coroner of Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, the steroids likely enlarged and weakened Jenkins’ heart, while the DMAA, which can elevate blood pressure, might have sent his heart into a fatal rhythm.

It wasn’t the first time that Hetrick came across DMAA in a toxicology report. Two weeks earlier, he found that another county resident, 21-year-old Maxwell Duesterhoeft, drowned after wading into a river while loaded on a combination of alcohol, bath salts, marijuana and DMAA that he took at a party. Hetrick tells us that DMAA, which makes users feel hot and sweaty, likely prompted Duesterhoeft to walk into the water to cool off, while the other substances destroyed his judgment.

It’s unknown whether Duesterhoeft or Jenkins knew that they ingested DMAA, which isn’t always listed on supplement labels. When it’s listed, it’s called at least 12 different names, including “geranium extract,” even though Food and Drug Administration found in 2012 that no DMAA exists in geraniums.

It’s no comfort to Duesterhoeft’s and Jenkins’ families now, but FDA tried for at least 2 years to get DMAA out of the hands of consumers. The agency says DMAA can elevate blood pressure and lead to cardiovascular problems. In April 2012, FDA warned 10 manufacturers that selling supplements that contained DMAA was illegal, because the ingredient never was registered and because no proof was submitted that DMAA was safe. The agency also warned consumers not to use 16 products that contained DMAA, because it questioned the ingredient’s safety. Most of the companies that received warnings reformulated their products and stopped including DMAA. However, supplements that include DMAA still are available on the Internet.

Four years ago, we reported that the dietary-supplements industry was a largely unregulated marketplace where “buyer beware” was the only rule. Today, the market is larger and more confusing than ever before.

Every one of the 12 medical experts whom we interviewed tells us that little evidence exists that dietary supplements actually work. Even when the supplements contain exactly what manufacturers claim that they do—and 1 in 4 products don’t, according to ConsumerLab, which independently tests dietary supplements—the scant independent scientific evidence that proves that the supplements improve health pertains to a limited number of health matters.

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STILL GROWING. At least 53 percent of U.S. adults use dietary supplements, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Consumers spent up to $35 billion on dietary supplements in 2013, which is up from $27 billion in 2009, according to Nutrition Business Journal.

As profits grew, so did the amount of harm that dietary supplements caused. FDA says the number of health problems that were traced back to dietary supplements tripled to 4,051 adverse events in 2013 from 1,321 in 2009. However, experts tell us that adverse events woefully are underreported and that the 4,051 reported adverse events represent only a fraction of the true total. FDA says the true number of adverse events that are associated with dietary supplements could be 50,000 annually.

“When someone gets sick from a supplement, it’s almost never reported,” says Dr. Pieter Cohen, who is an internist and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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