May 3, 2004 at 1:30 PM CDT - Updated June 27 at 3:08 AM
The Food and Drug Administration estimates there are more than 30,000 different dietary supplements on the market. They promise everything from helping you lose weight, to giving you energy, to improving your love life. People spend close to 20 billion dollars a year on dietary supplements. But just because they're for sale, doesn't mean they're safe. Consumer Reports has identified a dozen supplement ingredients that are on the market that can be dangerous, even deadly.
Beverly Hames now has gotten plenty of information about the dangers of an herbal supplement she took for back pain in the early nineties. But, at the time, she knew nothing about the potential risks.
"I was told that these herbs are safe, they're natural, and they've been used for hundreds of years," says Hames.
The supplements she took contained an ingredient called aristolochic acid, which is still on the market and has been linked to kidney failure. For Beverly, the problem became so serious she needed a kidney transplant. Consumer Reports Health Editor, Ronni Sandroff says aristolochic acid should be off the market.
"Aristolochic acid causes kidney failure, and that's not all. It's a potent carcinogen — this herbal ingredient is known to cause cancer," says Sandroff.
But supplements with this ingredient don't even warn of these potential risks. And it may not be listed on the label.
"On this bottle it's labeled as aristolochia fruit. On other bottles, we've seen it called wild ginger," says Ronni Sandroff of Consumer Reports.
Consumer Reports President Jim Guest says aristolochic acid is just one of several dangerous supplements for sale.
"You may think the Food and Drug Administration is watching over dietary supplements. But, in reality, the government has very little control. People taking supplements in many cases are essentially guinea pigs," says Consumer Reports' Jim Guest.
Unlike prescription and over-the-counter drugs, supplements are not closely monitored. For drugs, manufacturers must prove they're safe before they're sold. For supplements, no safety tests are required. Drugs have to be proven effective. No effectiveness testing is required for supplements. Drugs have to list potential side effects. With supplements, no safety warnings are required.
While the supplement industry says current regulations are adequate, Consumer Reports says, even though most supplements are probably benign, with so little government oversight, people should avoid them for the most part. "Aside from vitamins and minerals, we've found very few where there's adequate evidence the supplement would do any good and poses little risk," says Guest.
But they do exist. KLTV MedTeam’s Dr. Ed Dominguez says the medical community is beginning to adopt some of these supplements because indicators show some of them do have medical value.
"For example, saw palmetto [may be beneficial] for prevention of prostate problems, and that's been looked at in a very rigorous way by the N.I. H. And there are others like St. John's Wort in depression, where some studies suggest there may be a role for these supplements. But, in general, there are a lot of supplements out there that have not been looked at in a very vigorous way," says Dominguez.
Beverly Hames believes companies should have to prove their supplements are safe before putting them on the market.
"This did not need to happen to me. This absolutely did not need to happen to me or to anyone else who has ingested this herb," says Hames.
To read the entire report from Consumer Reports and the complete list of supplement ingredients you may want to avoid, clicks here.