Pharmaceutical Drugs Found in 776 Dietary Supplements (*study)

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    Pharmaceutical Drugs Found in 776 Dietary Supplements (*study)

    Pharmaceutical Drugs Found in 776 Dietary Supplements (*study)

    by Anthony Roberts

    A study published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the FDA has identified 776 dietary supplements that contained at least one pharmaceutical ingredient. The study relied exclusively on FDA data for 2007 through 2016. And most of the adulterated supplements were representative of either policy changes at the Food and Drug Administration, or the sort that you can?t purchase outside of a gas station or 7/11.

    The study, like many headline-grabbing studies that purport to expose the seedy underbelly of the dietary supplement industry, is easily misinterpreted. A more jaded perspective would be that studies like this one are purposely misleading, in order to grab headlines. Put another way, if I asked you to name ten dietary supplements, you might say ?Muscle Milk, Met-Rx, etc?.? At no point would you be likely to say ?Rhino 69? (one of the products referred to in the study as an adulterated ?dietary supplement.?).

    This is because most people, when they think of dietary supplements, think of the stuff on shelves at GNC or Vitamin Shoppe. The average person is unlikely to consider gas-station-boner pills to be (legitimate) dietary supplements. But those pills are the focus of this study, and easily account for the greatest number of adulterated products. Therefore, when the authors of the study claim ? In the United States, more than 50% of adults consume dietary supplements, fueling a $35 billion industry,? it?s important to realize that this statistic relies heavily on people who take a multivitamin or a protein supplement, and the adulterated products in this study represent a fraction of a fraction of a percent, of that overall number.

    ?Muscle Building? supplements account for less than 100 of the offending products (11.9%), and over 2/3rds of that number were recorded in a single year (2009) when FDA cracked down on prohormones. Unsurprisingly, 82/92 muscle building products contained anabolic steroids (but through 2009, most would have called them prohormones, and through 2012 most were still not specifically proscribed for being anabolic steroids).

    After sexual enhancement products, weight-loss pills were the greatest offenders. But again, the statistics are deceiving. For example, dimethylamylamine (DMAA) was regarded by many companies as a legal ingredient until FDA said otherwise (and was still incorrectly regarded as legal until FDA prevailed in court).

    Otherwise, we are mostly looking at stuff you can?t buy at GNC, but are for sale on such reputable websites as

    At the risk of belaboring my point, if I asked you to name ten dietary supplements, would ?ZXT Bee Pollen Pills? make the list? Most of the tainted supplements in this study are fly-by-night companies with no physical presence, or dong pills.

    Finally, it merits note that two outlier years account for almost 40% of the tainted supplements in the decade-long study, 2009 (already discussed) and 2015 (when FDA got serious about DMAA). These two years reflect policy change more than anything else, and represents FDA acting to ban or remove products, on which they?d previously (and knowingly) failed to act, for several years prior.

    Taken at face value, this study reveals widespread adulteration of products in the dietary supplement industry. But with a modicum of scrutiny the study reveals a far more benign landscape. Most of the products found in this study wouldn?t have been available at mainstream supplement shops. You couldn?t find them at GNC, and the average person would have no idea how to acquire a bottle.

    Contextualized properly, this study isn?t too shocking ? it reveals that purchasing boner pills at a gas station, or diet pills from dubious websites, increase the chance that the consumer will get an adulterated product. But I posit that the people making thee purchases are, more likely than not, aware that a $10 pill, purchased alongside unleaded gasoline, is probably going to contain something illicit.

    In broad terms, publishing a study like this, and simultaneously blasting out press releases to the media, forces me to consider the possibility that the lack of contextual rigor wasn?t by mistake, it was by design.

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