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Would You Like Some Arsenic With Your Dietary Supplement?

Recently, the FDA has required that supplement manufacturers accurately identify the ingredients of their products on their labels – though this mandate does not address efficacy or safety claims. Supplement manufacturers may make all sorts of claims about their products, without needing to provide evidence to support them. In fact, supplements may even contain ingredients known to be harmful. The FDA provides a short list here.

Does the FDA’s ingredient disclosure rule protect us (note that some manufacturers have until June, 2010 to comply)? I have a feeling that it is a little bit like keeping people honest with their taxes – the threat of a potential audit is supposed to galvanize citizens into proper documentation of their receipts and business expenditures, but the fact that the IRS doesn’t have the bandwidth to audit more than about 1% of the population (and they usually target those with higher incomes) means that some people “cheat” on their taxes.

The same holds true for supplement manufacturers. They know that they’re supposed to accurately represent the contents of their products on the label and engage in good manufacturing practices – but the chance of the FDA actually performing chemical tests on their product (since there are hundreds of thousands of them out there) is so low that they have no real incentive to comply. Many of them probably feel that they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it. After all, supplements are a $20 billion/year industry.

A new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reviewed the contents of one small subtype of supplements – traditional Ayurvedic medicines. They found that 1 in 5 samples (of 193 products sold via the Internet at 25 different websites) contained lead, mercury, and/or arsenic. I hope that this sobering statistic will make consumers think twice before reaching for that next “miracle cure.”

The FDA has an excellent (though somewhat dated) review article here. In it, they recommend the following:

To help protect themselves, consumers should:

  • Look for ingredients in products with the U.S.P. notation, which indicates the manufacturer followed standards established by the U.S. Pharmacopoeia.
  • Realize that the label term “natural” doesn’t guarantee that a product is safe. “Think of poisonous mushrooms,” says Elizabeth Yetley, Ph.D., director of FDA’s Office of Special Nutritionals. “They’re natural.”
  • Consider the name of the manufacturer or distributor. Supplements made by a nationally known food and drug manufacturer, for example, have likely been made under tight controls because these companies already have in place manufacturing standards for their other products.
  • Write to the supplement manufacturer for more information. Ask the company about the conditions under which its products were made.

Interested in purchasing supplements from companies who voluntarily submit their products to rigorous testing? Try Their mission is “to identify the best health and nutritional products through independent testing.”

However, in my opinion, very few supplements offer any valuable health benefits (beneficial vitamins and minerals for certain populations include Vitamin D, Calcium, folic acid, and Vitamin B12). 

The American Academy of Family Physicians found no evidence to recommend a single weight loss supplement. A healthy diet combined with regular exercise is the most important “supplement” you can take for optimum health.

And one thing I’m sure of – you don’t need any extra arsenic, lead, or mercury in your diet. Be careful what you put in your body!

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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One Response to “Would You Like Some Arsenic With Your Dietary Supplement?”

  1. RH Host Melissa says:

    Thank you SO much for this information!  Thank you for the reminder to always check what we are taking and read the labels very carefully!

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