The Supplement Industry: Exposing The Dark Side

It Is Buyer Beware

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney


the supplement industryEvery once in a while, the professor needs to clear out his desk. This week was a perfect time for a little early Spring cleaning. I have been accumulating articles about the dark side of the supplement industry. None of them are sufficient for a whole issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” by themselves, so I have combined the top three in this issue.

I don’t want to unduly alarm you. Most supplement companies are ethical. They are doing their best to provide you with supplements that will improve your health. However, there are a few bad apples in every barrel.


The Supplement Industry:  Exposing The Dark Side


the supplement industry the dark sidePerhaps the question we should be asking is “Why do supplement companies “Go over to the Dark Side” in the first place? It almost always involves the almighty dollar. Simply put, some companies are more interested in making money than they are about improving your health.

Let me give you some examples where companies cut corners to save money:

  • They substitute cheaper ingredients to save money. This practice is referred to as adulteration. There is, in fact, no evidence that the cheaper ingredients will provide the same benefit as the ingredient listed on the label. I give an example of adulteration below.
  • They don’t do quality controls. That saves a lot of money. However, it means that neither you or the company knows what is in the product. The FDA inspects as many manufacturing facilities as the can. Each year they shut down a few manufacturers for lack of quality controls, but two spring up for every one they shut down. I call it “Whack-A-Mole”, after that popular carnival game.
  • They don’t do clinical studies on their products. That also saves a lot of money. However, it means that neither you or the company knows whether their product is safe and effective. The FDA doesn’t require clinical studies, so many companies don’t do them.

the supplement industry bustedHowever, the worst abuses of the industry arise because of our own human frailties. When it comes to weight loss, muscle gain, sexual arousal, and energy,  many people don’t care about safety. They just want instant results.

The unscrupulous companies in the supplement industry are only too happy to oblige. They manufacture products containing illegal stimulants and pharmaceuticals. These products work. They also kill people. These companies are the really “bad apples” that give the whole industry a black eye. I will give some examples of products containing illegal stimulants and pharmaceuticals below.


The Adulteration Of Cranberry Supplements


the supplement industry cranberryIs nothing sacred? Is even something as wholesome and natural as cranberry supplements not safe from adulteration? Apparently, the answer is: “No”.

Part of the problem is that cranberry supplements have become very popular. They used to just be for urinary tract infections. However, a quick scan of the internet showed they are now also recommended for detoxification, for reducing inflammation, for reducing heart disease and preventing kidney stone formation.

With the increased interest in the benefits of cranberry supplements, it is no surprise that sales of cranberry supplements almost doubled between 2013 and 2016. That created a huge problem for manufacturers. Cranberry extract is very expensive, and there just wasn’t enough to meet demand. Plus, for new companies to gain traction in an increasingly crowded market, they needed to come in at a lower price than the established supplement companies.

You might suspect unscrupulous companies would be tempted to substitute cheaper ingredients for authentic cranberry extract. In fact, because of a recent bulletin released by the Botanical Adulterants Program of the American Botanical Council, we know that is exactly what is happening. The bulletin reported that many ingredient suppliers are adulterating cranberry extract with cheaper ingredients such as peanut skin, grape seed, mulberry fruit, hibiscus calyx, black bean skin, or black rice. In fact, they are using almost any ingredient that can impart the same red color found in authentic cranberry extracts.

Unfortunately, most supplement companies don’t have the kind of sophisticated equipment that is required to test for adulteration. They simply believe the lies of their suppliers and pass on these worthless “cranberry supplements” to you.


The FDA Warns Against Kratom Supplements


the supplement industry too good to be trueKratom supplements have also gained widespread popularity in recent years. A quick scan of claims on the internet show why. If you believe the hype, kratom will:

  • Relieve anxiety, stress, and depression.
  • Relieve pain & inflammation.
  • Improve mental acuity & focus.
  • Increase your metabolic rate & burn off excess pounds.
  • Improve your sexual prowess.
  • Induce healthy sleep.
  • Strengthen your immune system.
  • Prevent diabetes.
  • Help with opioid withdrawal.


I didn’t come across “leaping tall buildings in a single bound”, but I might have missed something. With all this hype, it’s no wonder kratom is becoming so popular.

However, the FDA is not impressed. They recently issued an FDA advisory  “about the deadly risks associated with kratom.”

The FDA advisory states: “Proponents argue that it is a safe substance because it is a plant-based product…Evidence shows that kratom has similar effects to narcotics like opioids, and carries similar risks of abuse, addiction and in some cases, death.”

It goes on to say: “Calls to US poison control centers regarding kratom have increased 10-fold from 2010 to 2015, with hundreds of calls made each year. The FDA is aware of 36 deaths associated with kratom-containing products…The use of kratom is also associated with serious side effects like seizures, liver damage, and withdrawal symptoms.”

The FDA is currently doing its best to seize and destroy shipments of kratom entering the country, but some is still making it in. The kratom manufacturers have disputed the FDA claims, but my advice would be to avoid kratom supplements until this issue is resolved.


Illegal Stimulants Can Still Be Found In Supplements

the supplement industry illegal ingredientsAmphetamine-like stimulants are very popular for weight loss and muscle building supplements. This is because they increase metabolic rate, which “burns fat effortlessly”, and increase energy, which “improves workouts and maximizes muscle gain.” You can sense the allure of these kinds of products.

There is only one problem. They cause high blood pressure and irregular heartbeat. They kill people. In previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor” I have warned you about the amphetamine-like stimulants DMAA and DMBA. They are both quite dangerous. The FDA has ruled that both are illegal dietary ingredients. That means they should not be present in any supplements. Period.

Octodrine is another amphetamine-like stimulant. It was approved as a drug to treat bronchitis in the 1940s. As a pharmaceutical ingredient, it also should not be present in any supplement.

Unfortunately, a recent study (PA Cohen et al, Clinical Toxicology shows that they are still present in supplements you can easily buy online. The investigators searched online for weight loss and sports supplements which had natural sounding ingredients on their labels that might be analogs of DMAA.

They selected two weight loss products and four sports supplements, purchased the products, and tested them in their laboratory. All of them contained illegal stimulants. In addition to DMAA, the investigators found DMBA, octodrine, and several other stimulants in the products they tested.

There is no way to whitewash this. These are all illegal stimulants. They could not have ended up in the products by chance. These manufacturers were knowingly adding illegal ingredients to their products. I’m sure they felt adding those ingredients would allow them to make exaggerated claims about how their products could “make your weight disappear without any effort” and “turn Clark Kent into Superman.” They were thinking about all the money they could make. But, they had to know their products might just kill someone.


How Can You Protect Yourself From The Dark Side of The Supplement Industry?

How can you protect yourself from unscrupulous supplement manufactures? How can you make sure the supplements you use are safe and effective, that they build your health rather than destroy your health? I have covered this in previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor”. Here is a brief summary:

  • Choose an established company, with a reputation for integrity.
  • Ignore alluring claims about cures, boundless energy, and the like. Use your common sense. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true.
  • Ignore testimonials. They are often made up. Ignore endorsements. They are bought and sold.
  • Insist on rigorous quality controls
  • Insist on published clinical studies that show their products are safe and effective.


The Bottom Line


In this week’s issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” I explored the dark side of the supplement industry. For example:

  • A recent bulletin by the Botanical Adulterants Program of the American Botanical Council reported that many cranberry supplements were adulterated with cheaper ingredients with no proven effectiveness.
  • The FDA has recently issued an official advisory about the deadly risks associated with kratom products.
  • A recent study showed that some weight loss and sports supplements contain illegal stimulants that have the potential to kill people.

For more details about these reports and how you can protect yourself from the dark side of the supplement industry, read the article above.


These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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