FDA: Natural Dietary Supplements Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

FDA: Natural Dietary Supplements Can Be Hazardous to Your Health
October 15, 2015

It goes without saying that consumers should use caution when buying dietary supplements over the internet, but health fraud happens in the non-digital world, too.

Ethnic or international stores, flea markets and swap meets are ripe with health fraud scams, since criminals often target those who have limited English proficiency, and access to health care and information.

"These scammers know that ethnic groups who may not speak or read English well, or who hold certain cultural beliefs, can be easy targets," said Cariny Nunez in a written statement from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Nunez is a public health advisor in the agency's Office of Minority Health.

Many advertisers put the word, "natural" on the supplement's packaging because Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, and Africans have a long tradition of turning to more herbal or natural remedies.

The word, "natural" is problematic for many reasons and in recent years there's been a push to ban its use on legitimate products. In this case, though, a natural claim can hide potential dangers.

Natural products aren't necessarily safe products. Hundreds of products on the market claim to be natural, but actually contain hidden prescription medications or chemicals.

The best example of this can be seen in weight loss and sexual enhancement supplements. While the labels claim that the products are made with herbal ingredients, they often contain hidden medications, some of which have been off the market for years. Sibutramine is often found in weight loss supplements, but it was pulled from the market in 2010 because it posed an increased risk of heart problems and stroke. Sexual enhancement drugs often contain the active ingredient in Viagra, which, while approved, can cause life threatening side effects in men with existing heart problems.

Scammers target these supplements to vulnerable people who may already have existing health problems – cancer, HIV/AIDS, obesity – and are looking for easy and less expensive treatments.

Other scammers may sell prescription medication, like antibiotics, without requiring a prescription. Or market products that look like antibiotics but aren't. Both scenarios are potentially detrimental to a patient's health.

While some consumers may find comfort in products labeled as being from their own country of origin, others put confidence in those that claim to be made in the States. Labels are easy to manufacture and manipulate.

It's important to remember that the law does not require supplement makers to get FDA before marketing their products.

In fact, the law does not require companies who make dietary supplements to get FDA approval before marketing their products. The FDA can take action if a supplement isn't manufactured properly or contains a medication without approval.

Is your supplement a fake? The FDA says to watch out for these claims:

  • One product does it all. Be suspicious of products that claim to cure a wide range of diseases.
  • Personal testimonials. Success stories such as "It cured my diabetes," or "My tumors are gone," are easy to make up and are not a substitution for scientific evidence.
  • Quick fixes. Few diseases or conditions can be treated quickly, even with legitimate products. Beware of language such as "lose 30 pounds in 30 days," or "eliminates skin cancer in days."
  • "All natural." Some plants found in nature can kill if you eat them. Plus, FDA has found products promoted as "all natural" that contain hidden and dangerously high doses of prescription drug ingredients.
  • Miracle cure. Alarms should go off when you see this claim or others like it such as "new discovery" or "scientific breakthrough." A real cure for a serious disease would be all over the media and prescribed by doctors—not buried in print ads, TV infomercials, or on Internet sites.
  • FDA-Approved. Domestic or imported dietary supplements are not approved by FDA.

If you or someone you know has had a bad reaction to a dietary supplement, report it to the FDA's MedWatch program.

For a list of current supplements recalled for health fraud, visit the FDA website.

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