What if you could pop a tablet and magically be granted luscious locks and radiant skin? Would you mix up a powdery drink for tighter muscles and a negligible body fat index? How about sharpened brain function, improved heart health, boosted energy levels, reinforced bone strength, or heightened sexual desire? It’s all yours. Just one pill a day. Just one scoop.
That’s the main sell of the supplement industry, which has ballooned from a $20 billion market in 2004 into a $132 billion behemoth today—and is projected to more than double (to a staggering $284 billion) over just the next six years. It’s an especially whirlwind force stateside, too. In America alone, 170 million adults regularly take supplements. And three out of four people over 55 do so daily.
But despite immense popularity and an ostensible goal of helping people live better, healthier lives, the supplement industry isn’t what it seems. In fact, peeling back the curtain even just a bit reveals an insidious underbelly—weaponized lawsuits, outright lies about ingredients, and a general sense of apathy in the face of frightening medical statistics. Below, we reveal the most downright terrifying stats and secrets about the supplement industry. And for the other (note: healthier) side of the coin, check out the 50 Best Supplements on the Planet.
Those Omega-3s might not be helping.
Common knowledge dictates that omega-3 fatty acids—abundantly found in fatty wild fish, like sockeye salmon—are excellent for heart health. But, as a recent study in JAMA Cardiology suggests, if you’re already at high risk for developing or currently suffer from heart disease, they might not do much. According to their research, folks who regularly took doses of omega-3 experienced “no significant reduction in the rate of … heart attacks and strokes.” And for better ways to boost your heart health, try eating more of the 40 Best Foods For Your Heart.
Supplements might send you to the ER.
According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, more than 23,000 people are sent to the emergency room each year due to complications from supplement ingestion. (Weight loss pills supplements were the number one culprit.)
Or even the hospital.
Of those 23,000 annual supplement-related ER visits, about 10 percent (roughly 2,100 per year) lead to hospitalizations.
Supplements might contain amphetamines.
In 2015, a study in Drug Testing and Analysis revealed that six weight loss supplements produced by Hi-Tech Pharmaceuticals contained R-beta-methylphenethylamine (BMPEA), a compound molecularly similar to amphetamines, according to STAT. It took just two weeks after publication for the FDA to demand a recall. Nowadays, the BMPEA is classified by the FDA as “a substance that does not meet the statutory definition of a dietary ingredient.” For healthier ways to lose weight, skip the supplements and instead try out the 20 Best Weight-Loss Techniques Successful Dieters Share.
Companies can be litigious.
If hidden, circumspect substances sound scary to you, get this: The CEO of Hi-Tech Pharmaceuticals, Jared Wheat, took the Drug Testing and Analysis study’s lead author, Pieter Cohen, a Harvard professor, to court for $200 million in damages. The case was futile from the start; Wheat lost almost instantly. (His first attempt at filing, in Georgia, was tossed out before oral arguments began.)
But that was the plan all along. Wheat’s goal wasn’t to score a payday—it was to inject fear into researchers. As he admitted to STAT, the health news publication of record, “Hopefully, this will deter others.”
Cohen is reportedly currently conducting new research related to dietary supplements.
Your life is at risk.
According to a study in the Journal of Medical Toxicology, supplement ingestion can be fatal: Last year, 34 people died as a direct result.
Ingredient label percentages can be inaccurate.
Labdoor, a research laboratory that tests dietary supplements, found that hair supplements skew their ingredient labels, as reported by BuzzFeed. One offender? SugarBearHair, a product championed by Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner on Instagram. Labdoor reveal that the company’s hair supplements contained about 70 percent more biotin and 26 percent less Vitamin E than indicated on the label.
“Natural” doesn’t always mean natural.
Jack3d, a pre-workout supplement manufactured by USPlabs, purported to be made out of plant-based product. But, as a Department of Justice investigation revealed, the stuff turned out to be entirely synthetic. According to a USA Today report, in 2015, the DOJ criminally charged six USPlabs execs with conspiracy. And for more shocking facts about life around you, here are 20 Shocking Facts About Your Hotel Room.
Supplements can give you hypothermia.
In 2013, a 22-year-old U.S. Army soldier suffered a sudden and fatal case of hypothermia after ingesting merely two scoops of Jack3d, per a Military Times investigation. The case was tossed out, “with prejudice” (in other words: The plaintiff can’t file an appeal) due to faulty witness testimony.
Among the main ingredients in the supplement was dimethylamylamine (DMAA), which, according to experts from the Department of Defense, can bring about serious cases of hypothermia. And for much healthier things to ingest, consider these 15 Over-the-Counter Drugs That Will Make You Smarter.
They can cause liver failure.
In addition to hypothermia, the FDA warns that DMAA can cause a host of serious conditions, including seizures and liver failure. In fact, both Jack3d and another USPlabs supplement, OxyExlite Pro, have been linked to several cases where liver transplants were required, per USA Today. As such, the FDA demanded USPlabs pull both from the market and immediately halt production.
Bad supplements could be on the shelves.
USPlabs did, indeed, halt production. But they didn’t pull anything off the shelves. Instead, according to a Reuters report, executives dictated that employees try to sell off the remaining product. (Surely you’ll be floored by this information, but the same executives that pulled this stunt were the ones who lied about Jack3’s natural origins. You’ll be forgiven for starting to think that USPlabs might be a odious enterprise.)
They take advantage of people suffering from addiction.
As Business Insider reported, Sunrise Nutraceuticals, the company behind Elimidrol, marketed their beverage as a substance to help overcome opiate withdrawal. Thing is: Elimidrol contains precisely zero ingredients that have been medically proven to help combat addiction. As such, the FTC slammed them with a $5 million suit.
You shouldn’t mix with smoking.
According to a trial conducted by the U.S. National Cancer Institute, smokers who regularly consumed Vitamin A supplements were actually more likely to develop lung cancer than smokers who did not. For more on the disease and your risk level, learn the 15 Most Common Types of Cancer.
They’re useless at preventing dementia.
Makers of antioxidant supplements, like selenium, tout the stuff’s inherent anti-dementia properties. But, according to a recent study in JAMA Neurology, supplement-ingesting participants showed no decreased rate of Alzheimer’s diagnoses. For healthier ways to keep your brain keen, try eating more of the 40 Best Foods For Your Brain.
Your supplements might be little more than carb pills.
As the New York Times revealed, in 2015, the New York State attorney general’s office filed suit against four Walgreens for straight-up lying about their store-brand ginseng pills. The pills purported to contain nutrients that would promote “endurance and vitality,” but, in reality, contained little more than powdered rice and finely ground garlic.
They can contain gluten.
Walmart claims their ginkgo biloba, a popular brain-boosting supplement, is both gluten- and wheat-free. But, per a New York State attorney general probe, via the New York Times, officials found that the supplement contained only radish and wheat—and, notably, no ginkgo biloba.
They might also contain allergens.
For folks with peanut allergies, this next fact should petrify you. In 2015, according to the New York Times, the FDA found that GNC used so-called “fillers”—extra powder, typically on the cheaper side, intended to bolster product weight and ultimately cut down on production costs—in their store-brand supplements. A common filler? Legumes, which fall under the same class of wildlife as peanuts. GNC did not include this information on their labels.
Multivitamins might give you cancer.
A 2007 review out of the National Cancer Institute found that men who took multivitamin supplements regularly died from prostate cancer at nearly twice the rate of those who steered clear of the stuff.
They have no official support.
From the National Institutes of Health, to the World Health Organization, to the Mayo Clinic, to the Cleveland Clinic, to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and every other heavy hitter in the medical industry, not a single organization officially recommends the use of supplements. For better ways to live your best life, be sure to check out the 100 Ways to Be A (Much) Healthier Man or the 100 Ways to Be A (Much) Healthier Woman.
Nothing is going to change.
With drugs, for example, the FDA has to approve anything before it goes to market. With supplements, thanks to stipulations in the DSHEA, the FDA has no such power; the agency can only demand that products be removed from sale—usually months after issues, like hospitalizations, start to occur with frequency. The removal process itself can take months, too, which means products can stay on shelves long after they’re commonly thought to be unsafe. Keep that in mind next time you reach for a weight loss pill.
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