What you need to know about dietary supplements: part 2

by Amy Renee
What you need to know about dietary supplements: part 2


Adulterants are any substance(s) that are found in supplements that are not listed on the ingredients label. Sometimes they are accidental and sometimes they are intentional.

Accidental Adulteration of Supplements

Sometimes contamination of supplements is accidental as in the case of toxic chemicals that may have been accidentally introduced into the supplement during manufacturing and packaging. Since strict regulations for supplements are lacking, contamination of supplements with toxic substances is more common than you would think.

Intentional Adulteration of Supplements

Many times manufacturers intentionally contaminate supplements with adulterants such as steroids and prescription drugs to make them stronger. This type of adulteration most commonly occurs in supplements used for weight-loss, sexual enhancement, and bodybuilding. The types of adulterants (prescription drugs) that are most often found in these supplements include fenfluramine, fluoxetine, orlistat, phenolphthalein, phentermine, rimonabant, sertraline, sibutramine, desmethylsibutramine, and didesmethylsibutramine. Many of these drugs are no longer available even with a legal prescription due to adverse and potentially lethal effects to health such as lethal cardiac events, permanent liver damage or otherwise. Many popular bodybuilding supplements have been found to contain steroids which can lead to several awful side effects, both health-related such as adverse cardiovascular effects and aesthetic-related such as facial hair growth in women.

The FDA will occasionally test supplements for adulteration. Although a new instrument (called a portable ion mobility spectrometer) has made it easier for the FDA to test supplements for adulterants, many still go untested putting consumers at risk. Not only that, but also many manufacturers will simply take their products off the market once they are caught and restock them under a new name so they can keep making money. Remember, this is a billion dollar industry and with so many different supplements on the market it is just too difficult for the FDA to keep up.


Something else to consider is the fact that many supplements will likely block absorption of other supplements, so you are literally peeing out your hard earned money! That is if the supplement even contained what is listed on the bottle. For example if you were taking a zinc supplement this would block absorption of magnesium.

More importantly, supplements interfere with the metabolism of prescription drugs which could make the prescription drugs either less or more effective. It is CRITICAL you inform your physician of any supplements you are currently taking and/or plan to take.


Although supplements list the amount of active ingredient each pill/capsule/teaspoon (or whatever the serving size is) has in it this could be off by a significant amount. This goes back to how loosely dietary supplements are regulated and could be a big problem for people who already eat a healthy, varied diet and still take a multi-vitamin/mineral supplement or other supplements thinking they are being healthy. Excess amounts of some vitamins and minerals will just be excreted via urine, so at worst you are wasting your hard earned cash. Others though, such as iron, calcium, and vitamins A and D can be dangerous when too much is consumed. If you are getting adequate amounts through your diet and still take supplements you could actually overdose on vitamins or minerals. Think about the effects of selenium overdose as you saw in the Dateline NBC episode from WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT DIETARY SUPPLEMENTS: PART 1!

Note: ALL supplements (and pharmaceuticals for that matter) should be kept in a place that children cannot get to. Supplements sometimes look like candy to children and can be very dangerous. Just a small amount of iron supplements for example could KILL a small child!

Our bodies were designed to eat food. Real food.

Vitamin and mineral supplements have long been thought of as a means to better health. Supplement manufacturers have spent billions of dollars trying to find ways to isolate specific micronutrients from whole foods to treat certain conditions or enhance health. Brilliant marketing strategies have tricked consumers (including myself) into spending billions on supplements that may have either not worked how we expected them to or worse – caused more harm than good.

Vitamins and minerals from whole foods are essential in order for the body to maintain normal metabolic functioning. Without vitamin C we would get scurvy. In the absence of thiamine we would get beriberi. A diet devoid of folate would lead to metabolic disturbances that could lead to a myriad of health problems such as heart failure and neural tube defects in babies. These are only a few examples of the importance of micronutrients in our diet. Unfortunately when these micronutrients are isolated from whole food they do not always work the same way as they do in their original form. After spending so much money (much of it taxpayer money) on trying to find benefits in isolating micronutrients much of what researchers have found is that there seems to be a synergistic effect of a variety of chemicals found in whole foods that work together to promote good health and when you remove specific nutrients from food not only do they not have the same health-promoting effects, but research has found that they can actually do harm in some cases!

Taking a mere multivitamin will not neutralize the effects of a poor diet. In fact, the opposite holds true. As I point out below, the available evidence shows that when you simply separate micronutrients from foods and ingest them in their pure form adverse effects to health can occur. SO EAT MORE PLANT FOODS whether you choose to eliminate animal foods or not!

“The ‘whole’ nutritional effect [of food chemicals] is greater than the sum of its parts.”

– Dr. T. Colin Campbell

What the evidence shows

The first research study to show that isolation of micronutrients can be harmful to humans was a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in which 29,133 male smokers aged 50 to 69 years were randomly assigned to one of four study groups (vitamin E alone, vitamin E + beta-carotene, beta-carotene alone, or a placebo). Researchers followed up with the participants for 5 to 8 years or until death. No benefits were found from either supplement (vitamin E or beta-carotene), in fact the men who received the beta-carotene supplement had a statistically significant higher risk of dying from lung cancer, ischemic heart disease, and ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke compared to those who didn’t receive the supplement.

In another study published in The Journal of The National Cancer Institute, the Beta-Carotene and Retinol Efficacy Trial (CARET) examined how supplementation of beta-carotene and retinyl palmitate (another form of vitamin A) affected incidence of lung cancer or other cancers among 18,314 high risk (due to history of smoking or asbestos exposure) participants. The study had to be stopped early because those in the experimental group had such an incredibly higher incidence of cancer and cardiovascular disease (28% and 17% respectively) compared to those in the control group.

Here’s one more example: In the Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial (SELECT), a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, 35,533 healthy men with average risk for prostate cancer were randomly assigned to four groups (vitamin E alone, vitamin E + selenium, selenium alone, and a placebo). The men in the vitamin E only group showed a 17% increase in prostate cancer (a statistically significant finding) during follow-up which was 7 to 11 years.

Several more studies examined the effects of a variety of antioxidant supplements and many have found statistically significant results that there are NO BENEFITS TO TAKING ANTIOXIDANT SUPPLEMENTS TO IMPROVE HEALTH, in fact those who do seem to live shorter lives. As renowned nutrition research investigator Dr. Michael Greger states so perfectly in this short but informative video, you are essentially “paying to live a shorter life.”

Don’t feel bad – The sly marketing has fooled me too!

Hmmm…let’s see if I can remember all (or most anyway) of my supplement use:

It started innocently enough with my chewable Flinstone vitamins that I took as a kid. I loved them. They were like candy and I always tried to convince my grandma to give me a second. Back then (as many still do) people thought a daily multivitamin was necessary for overall good health as well as for proper growth and development in children.

Then in high school I was prescribed megadoses of niacin when I had Bell’s palsy. I don’t know if it helped at all. I had it for about three months and every time I took my niacin megadose I would break into a sweat and my entire body would break out in hives. It was really embarrassing. Keep in mind that half my face was paralyzed too because of the Bell’s palsy. Talk about a traumatic experience for a 16 year-old. I remember I had to take that dose right before Spanish class and everyone would just look at me like I was a total freak. Ugh.

Combine my Bell’s palsy experience with my being so overweight in high school and it’s no wonder why I had such a low self-esteem! So once I got to college and started exercising of course I was interested in ANYTHING that promised to help with weight loss or appetite control. Enter Herbalife. Keep in mind this was 1995/1996 – ephedra was still legal and thus the main ingredient in most of the diet pills, so although I did end up losing about 10 pounds I also unknowingly put myself at risk for cardiovascular events such as stroke. I can’t remember exactly every supplement I ever took in my undergraduate years, but I know the list included Xenedrine, Hydroxycut, Uva Ursi, prenatal vitamins, vitamin C, several types of protein powders and more.

Once I made my way to Florida I got into even more supplements such as alpha lipoic acid, L-carnitine, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), chitosan, bitter orange, hoodia, glucosamine, glutamine, creatine, and yohimbe extract. And this long list doesn’t even include the TONS of protein powders I consumed. And come to find out scientific evidence has shown that several types of protein mixes have been found to contain lead! YES, TOXIC LEAD!!! And I LOVED my chocolate protein powder – ate TONS of it EVERY DAY!!!

For a few years of my life I had a cabinet FULL of pills and a huge pill case that I had to fill every week so that I would remember to take all of these pills. Ridiculous! I’m pretty sure that at one time in my life I was taking over 30 pills per day. Ugh. The thought of that to me now makes me sad for my poor liver. 

Today I am happy to say I don’t take ANY supplements of any kind. I don’t need to because I get all of my vitamins and minerals along with tons of antioxidants and phytonutrients in my delicious, plant-based diet full of whole foods including legumes, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and other plant foods. Oh, and by the way, I weigh less and am much healthier and happier than I EVER was taking ANY of those ridiculous supplements! And for those of you who read my post “Finding my inner beauty in the ugly world of fitness,” I weigh less and feel better about my body now than I did even then when I was starving myself, taking tons of pills every day and working out for 2+ hours per day! I’m not trying to boast – just making a point that unless you have certain health conditions or malabsorption issues YOU DON’T NEED SUPPLEMENTS! DON’T WASTE YOUR MONEY! YOU’RE JUST PAYING TO MAKE YOURSELF SICK!!!


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