Just label it! Supplements, that is.

Let’s talk about a big, billion dollar industry. Lots of hype, little solid data. Basically unregulated. No need to perform safety tests or clinical trials before putting a product on the market. No review or testing by an independent party. Checkered safety record, certain products strongly linked to organ damage, cancer, hepatitis, and death (among other things). Consumed by millions of unsuspecting citizens every year.

GMOs? Nope. I’m talking about the supplement industry.

Image credit: Ano Lobb

Twitter friend @donnzpg recently pointed me to this article on Consumer Reports: 10 Surprising Dangers of Vitamins and Supplements — don’t assume they’re safe because they’re ‘all-natural’. It struck a chord with me because I know people — lots of people — who are intensely skeptical about synthetic cosmetics ingredients and pesticides and GMOs, yet take many supplements and herbals without requiring independent, double-blinded clinical testing results.

I am absolutely guilty of this. I choose cosmetics with very few ingredients (and yep, generally natural ones) and use very few of them, because I fundamentally don’t think the cost/benefit assessment pans out when it comes to something like cosmetics. Yet I haven’t once checked up to see what tests have been done on my daily vitamin. Probably not too many — it came from my well-intentioned mother, who got it at Target. In fact, I feel downright virtuous when I take it even though I’ve read the studies that question the efficacy of vitamins and supplements. (High doses of vitamins can be downright harmful.) I buy fortified orange juice even thoughI just saw a study that suggests that too much calcium and Vitamin D can cause blood and bone issues

Goddammit, brain. If this is the best you can do, I might have to replace you with a more rational model.

As a plant lover and photosynthesis fan, I’m struggling to overcome my naturalistic fallacy and look at plants in a more rational way. Some can heal, many can harm, and a fair number can kill. If you’re not convinced that plants have a dark side, think about this. When the first photosynthesizing organisms arose, they caused a major extinction on earth by flooding the atmosphere with that most unstable, reactive, and poisonous gas — oxygen. But then oxygen became the basis for the ozone layer, which protected life from that other tremendously dangerous, carcinogenic force: UV radiation. If you can eat or breathe or walk under the sun, thank a plant.

At the same time, because plants can’t move, they’ve evolved into incredible chemical factories that protect them from predators. Coffee, bread, chili peppers, and basil are just a few of the things we eat that have naturally occurring carcinogens, and there is nothing that makes these natural chemicals inherently less toxic than synthetic ones. Many of our synthetics are actually based on natural chemicals! As Bruce Ames has said, 99.9% by weight of all pesticides we eat are entirely natural.

What this means is that supplements are chemicals. Essential oils are chemicals. Herbal medicines are chemicals. And the fact that they come from natural sources says exactly nothing about their safety. (It terrifies me when I read about well-meaning green pet owners applying essential oils to their pets. Without clinical testing or dosage information, it’s all one big experiment on a favorite quadruped.)

I’m biased, of course. My aunt died of kidney failure just after turning 40. She had an intense distrust of western medicine and instead relied heavily on traditional Chinese herbal medicine. An autopsy revealed a startling accumulation of heavy metals in her body. These were traced back to the high doses of unregulated herbals she took for 10+ years. She left behind two young children and is much missed.

It’s an anecdote, not a peer reviewed study, but it made an impression on me. And I don’t think it’s altogether an unusual story, either. Supplement makers do not need to test their products or back up their health claims. They do not need to test for or list possible, sometimes extremely serious, drug interactions. They do not need to show allergenicity studies. They have to be proven harmful before the FDA steps in. And they are quite common in processed foods, so it would be fairly easy to overdose on certain vitamins if you drink fortified milk, eat fortified cereal, and pop a daily multivitamin.

I guess my question is: why is the consumer standard of proof so different — and lacking — for supplements? If cosmetic chemicals and GMOs are so alarming, why are we not up in arms demanding that supplement manufacturers prove the safety of their products before peddling them to us?

Just some of the things I’ve been thinking about. Do you take supplements? Have you looked into their safety?


23 responses to this post.

  1. I am terribly skeptical about the efficacy of most supplements. I do believe the research is there to support taking a B-complex, particularly if you are vegetarian, a vitamin D depending on your latitude, and Omega 3s, particularly for pregnancy and children. “Good” supplements means absolutely nothing to me and it is one area where I buy with blind faith because of a company’s reputation. I do wish this area had much more safety information available.


    • Hi Brenna,

      I think it’s a great idea to get blood regularly checked for vitamin deficiencies, whether vegetarian or omnivore. I haven’t had mine checked since I stopped eating meat almost five years ago. Targeted supplementation, based on your actual bloodwork results and under the direction of a qualified doctor, makes plenty of sense to me. But how many people take supplements just because they think that they can’t hurt?


      • I definitely agree. Most take a multi-vitamin because it must be healthy. Most of us don’t need it and as you point out, it may even be harmful. With my health problems, I learned all about what specific deficiencies can cause. It is frightening. The first step though, is a healthy real food diet. The next step is learning what your body needs and how best to get it.


        • Absolutely. I had to do a diet analysis for my bio class and was relieved to find that (at least on that particular day), my diet was doing a pretty good job of covering my nutrient and calorie needs. I don’t get quite the recommended percentage of calories from protein and am short on iron, neither of which is surprising, but there’s probably no reason for me to take a vitamin. But I should get my blood checked one of these days. 🙂


  2. Posted by smallftprints on 08/08/2012 at 15:22

    I knew that synthetic supplements can cause major damage but you are so right … I’ve never actually researched the ones I take. I have had my blood checked and take only the vitamins that my doctor recommends … but still! Thanks for an eye-opening post (disturbing but eye-opening). 🙂


    • Hi Smallfootprints,

      Yeah…unfortunately, it’s not just the synthetic chemicals that can harm you. It would be so much simpler if that were the case! I think it’s fair to acknowledge that a lot of manmade chemicals have risks, but to keep them in perspective with the many, many natural ones that also have risks.


  3. Posted by EcoCatLady on 08/08/2012 at 19:04

    Well, as CatMan is fond of saying, the “natural” outcome of life is death. I think that people don’t realize that pharmaceuticals are, in most cases, actually made from plants – plants that have been carefully refined. Taking herbal supplements willy nilly really strikes me as a tad bit crazy – and Chinese herbal stuff scares me to death because how do you have any idea what’s actually in it?

    That being said, I do take some supplements, but I don’t do so blindly. I generally stick with a fairly low dose of vitamins, and only take full spectrum ones (because otherwise you just end up creating deficiencies). I also read as much of the medical literature as I can stomach on the pros and cons of anything I take. Certain supplements have been a Godsend for me… like feverfew, magnesium and primrose oil for migraines. But people really need to be careful – supplements are definitely an area where more is not necessarily better.


    • Hi Cat,

      I’m coming from the perspective of someone who has never been seriously ill (knock on wood), which probably makes me more skeptical and less inclined to try supplements or fad diets or whatever. I confess that I do like essential oils and use them for the pleasure of their fragrance. I’ve also noticed that some (clove, cinnamon, lemongrass, black pepper, clary sage) seem to give me headaches, although that’s hardly an objective observation!


  4. This just cracked me up, because in writing my latest blog post I stumbled over all this info on Lobelia cardinalis and how it has been used to treat…well, a very wide-ranging list of ailments. Then there’s this little note about how all parts of the plant are toxic if taken in large enough quantities. !!! Recipe for disaster…


    • Hi Becky,

      I think that’s the problem with self-dosing without enough info — we just don’t know what a therapeutic dose would look like, so it would be easy to not use enough (no effect) or use too much (toxicity). Assuming, of course, that it is actually has some potency. I’ve never heard of Lobelia cardinalis, but it sounds like an intriguing plant. Plants are amazingly good at making chemicals!


  5. Posted by Rosa on 08/08/2012 at 21:07

    There was a massive legislative fight about labeling/regulating supplements, I remember it happening but it wasn’t really my issue so i didnt’ pay too much attention. The specifics might be interesting.

    I take a multivitamin and a wintertime vitamin D supplement, sporadically enough that it takes me years to go through a jar of them. Occasionally switched out with the prenatal vitamins I still have sitting around. I’m not 100% convinced of their effectiveness but I live in the far frozen north, so the D at least is probably a good idea seasonally or when I’m working an office job.

    We give the cat chondroitin and l-lysine, on the advice of our vet (elderly cat with joint problems and a chronic viral infection of the face.) They do seem to help – if I skip the l-lysine for a few days, infected face cat gets open sores, and the chondroitin was actually for the previous elderly cat, who stayed active but visibly winced and got swollen joints when not treated. (sometimes he had joint problems even with it). Still alive elderly cat is less athletic but moves around more when she gets chondroitin, I think.

    And my son, on the advice of his pediatrician, gets a fish oil supplement and a multivitamin. We buy really expensive fish oil pills from Scandinavia because they are tested for mercury and no American sources we could find were. He stopped eating most things about a year ago, and the pediatrician thinks it’s better to just not fight with him about it and give him supplements. When he was tiny we had to give him an iron supplement because preemies don’t get enough iron stored up before they’re born.

    Some things are unregulated but I find them to be really helpful – arnica gel is one. But it’s all just anecdote, maybe plain alcohol gel would work just as well (icyhot makes my skin peel off.)


    • Hi Rosa,

      I’m not against all supplements, just suggesting they be treated with respect and preferably used under medical supervision. My friend’s kitty has herpes in her eye that she gets a daily half scoop of Lysine to keep in check, as recommended by the eye vet. I don’t see a significant difference between that and a prescription. I think it’s great that these things are helping to keep your elderly kitty comfortable and healthy.

      Confession: I have a tube of arnica gel on my nightstand, but I’m starting to suspect that the pleasant cooling tingle comes from the alcohol. I held a very informal experiment when I had two bruises on different legs to see if arnica would help the bruising if I put it just on one. I can’t say I saw a difference. Of course, it would be ideal if I started with exactly the same bruise on each leg, but I’m not sure how I would get manage to whack myself with exactly the same force and in the same spot.


      • Posted by Rosa on 08/09/2012 at 20:55

        is it a strong one or a homeopathic one? i haven’t done side by side tests on bruises (though i have an epic blood donation bruise right now, maybe I should!) but I definitely notice less muscle pain with arnica vs. plain massage. Of course I’ve never seen or tried plain alcohol gel. (Alcohol! It’s what put the good feeling in patent medicine! Grandma’s favorite cure!)

        The thing about the pediatrician & vet recommending supplements is that I haven’t bothered to check if there are any peer-reviewed studies on them, I have no idea if my experts are just falling for the same “someone told me it was good” thing the rest of us fall for.


        • It’s by Boiron, which does homeopathic supplements…looks like the concentration is 7%, which is higher than would be for homeopathic (essentially 0%). I have some neck and back tightness that arnica hasn’t helped with in the past, but a friend of mine swears by the stuff. I don’t know. I don’t use it often enough to be concerned. I’m checking it out on PubMed because I’m curious now.

          I do tend to trust experts with degrees over the internet, but you’re right that they’re hardly infallible. In this case, WebMD seems fairly confident that Lysine is effective in suppressing herpes virus and has a list of studies that you could follow up on.


  6. Thanks for this post Jennifer, I’m sorry that your aunt died needlessly. Like many, I’ve “drunk the Kool Aid” and tried supplements without credible evidence of their efficacy… not to mention their unproven safety. My best example is when I read way back in the mid to late 80s that echinacea was suppose to counter the effects of colds and flu. So the first time I began to get sick with what really was the flu, I jumped on it and took daily doses of the stuff. Sure enough, my symptoms were minimal and subsided within a couple of days. I became a firm believer and photocopied the article and shared it with my friends and co-workers.

    But a number of years later, when it seemed to have no impact on a couple of raging colds and a full-on case of flu, I became skeptical, though continued taking echinacea when I felt like I was getting sick. I’ve finally stopped in recent years upon reading of credible studies showing no effect as promoted. I’ve also taken milk thistle, even up until fairly recently, when I was drinking excessively… the presumption that my liver would be magically protected from alcohol’s harm. No evidence of that benefit either.

    And yet I still take the obligatory daily multi-vitamin (halved, 2x/day), low-dose vit C, and low-dose vit D (on shut-in days). This despite my eating as healthy a freakin’ whole plant vegan diet possible! I think B-12 is the only supplement I take that is truly a rational and prudent choice.

    p.s. I can vouch for the efficacy of L-lysine for feline upper-respiratory viruses. Both my cats and many shelter cats I used to tend to have benefitted from it. And kittehs are not fooled by teh placebo effect! \(=^ェ^=)/


    • Hi Donn,

      I agree that vegans should supplement B-12. Deficiencies are pretty scary because they often go undiscovered for a long time and can cause irreversible damage — this is also what alarms me about people who put their cats on a vegan diet.

      I can think of an alternative to the milk thistle: drink less! 🙂 Sounds like you’ve already done a good job cutting back. It’s crazy to me how many people overlook alcohol as a potent toxin highly present in their lives when they’re busy trying to reduce their chemical exposure.


  7. Posted by Anna on 08/09/2012 at 15:11

    I take calcium and B12 supplements, and am on-again/off-again with iron supplements. I keep meaning to do research on the efficacy of iron supplements — haven’t found good info so far. Stopped taking a multivitamin when Trader Joe’s stopped offering vegan multis, and since then have read the research on multivitamins and decided to stop pursuing them.

    I experimented with herbal medicines starting in my early adulthood, about 15 years ago, and am not impressed. I mainly used them for menstrual problems and insomnia, but also used gingko biloba and echinacea. At first I was convinced that the herbs I used for cramps helped, but in hindsight I think that can be attributed to a lot of things — placebo effect, the stabilization of hormones during those years, etc. After several years I realized that I was still having times of total incapacitation, so even if the herbs had some impact, they certainly weren’t doing very much to alleviate what was a major problem. Same with the herbs that I used for insomnia — they didn’t do jack squat, and valerian root smells/tastes like sewage, I swear. Of course, I had real, actual insomnia, not just some minor, occasional problems.

    Most of what I’ve taken does not check out when you read the Cochrane reviews. If I were to consider taking an herbal supplement, I wouldn’t do so without reading the peer-reviewed evidence first.


    • Hi Anna,

      I didn’t realize Trader Joe’s vitamins weren’t vegan. I used to get the chewables until I couldn’t bring myself to endure the gritty bitterness. I did ask them to reformulate their gummy vitamins without the gelatin, but no luck — and I don’t think I really need multivitamins.

      Had no idea about the valerian. Yuck! I actually do like ginger tea / ale for stomach aches and cramps. I don’t know if its effects are a placebo, but I’ve never done the research on why it works (if it does). Ginger is so widely used in food across many cultures that it seems pretty low risk.

      Thanks for pointing me to the Cochrane Reviews! Looks like a good resource.


      • Posted by Anna on 08/09/2012 at 20:17

        Oh, for all I know they could be vegan again — I haven’t checked in ages. This was like, 10 years ago that they stopped being vegan. They could have changed the formulation many times since then.


      • Posted by Anna on 08/09/2012 at 20:18

        Also I might have been a little dramatic likening valerian root to sewage, but it DOES smell really bad!


        • I’ve heard valerian is similar to catnip, whose scent I don’t mind, but the ever-informative Wiki tells me that both attract cats because they might mimic the smell of cat urine. Weirdly, it also appears to attract rats and slime molds. At this point, I think you’ve talked me out of ever trying valerian!


  8. I’m so excited to follow your blog! Oh exciting!


  9. Eat the right supplements. Omega 3 fish oils have been shown to greatly reduce inflammation and swelling of joints, as well as help to increase flexibility. Make sure you are taking these supplements as they are prescribed, and you will quickly find yourself able to do the tasks you were worried you would not be able to do.


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