Dangerous Supplements (aired 5/9/04)

The Food and Drug Administration estimates there are more than 30,000 different dietary supplements for sale in the United States. These supplements promise help for everything from losing weight, to gaining energy, to improving sexuality. People now spend close to $20 billion a year on dietary supplements.

But just because they're available for sale, doesn't mean they're safe. Consumer Reports has identified a dozen supplement ingredients currently on the market that are dangerous--even deadly.

Oregon resident Beverly Hames knew nothing about the potential risks about the dangers of an herbal supplement she took for back pain in the early 1990s.The supplement contained an ingredient called aristolochic acid, which has been linked to cancer and kidney failure. In Beverly's case, the problem became so serious that she needed a kidney transplant. "I was told that these herbs are safe, they're natural, and they've been used for hundreds of years," Hames says.

Supplements containing aristolochic acid (sometimes labeled as "aristolochia fruit" or "wild ginger") are still on the market, but their packaging contains no warning of these potential risks. In fact, the ingredient may not even be listed on the label.

Consumer Reports' president Jim Guest advises that aristolochic acid is just one of several dangerous supplements for sale. "You may think the Food and Drug Administration is watching over dietary supplements," Guest says. "But in reality, the government has very little control. People taking supplements in many cases are essentially guinea pigs."

Unlike prescription and over-the-counter drugs, dietary supplements are not closely monitored. For drugs, manufacturers must prove they're safe before they're sold. But no safety tests are required for supplements. Drugs have to be proven effective, while no effectiveness testing is required for supplements. And while drugs have to list potential side effects--no safety warnings are required on supplements.

While the supplement industry insists that current regulations are adequate, Consumer Reports says that 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.

Consumer Reports says while dietary supplements that contain aristolochic acid are the most dangerous, there are other supplements that put you at risk for cancer, liver disease, even death. You can get a complete list of the dozen supplement ingredients Consumer Reports says are dangerous and should be taken off the market on ConsumerReports.org's Health and fitness section.

Consumer Reports has no commercial relationship with any advertiser or sponsor appearing on this Web site.

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