Super cancer fighter. Belly fat melter. Memory enhancer.
These are claims regularly seen across the aisles of the nation’s supplement stores, with the $37 billion dollar vitamin and supplements industry touting itself as a powerful cure-all to any and all ailments.
Making such claims is no big deal to many in the supplements industry, which is widely unregulated thanks to the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, allowing manufacturers to escape the scrutiny that other drugs face. But, in a rare move last week, U.S. government agencies including the FDA and the Department of Justice, filed criminal and civil charges against 117 makers and distributors of potentially dangerous supplements, giving consumers a much-needed wake up call.
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One of the targets of the government investigation is USPlabs LLC, which faces criminal charges. The company claims to have used all-natural plant extracts in their weight-loss supplements, Jack3d and OxyElite Pro, but were actually using a synthetic stimulant made in Chinese factories that’s linked to liver toxicity. According to the FDA, the chemical in question, aegeline, causes liver damage so severe that several people required transplants and one even died.
The Justice Department alleges that USPlabs “doctored packaging, labeling and other paperwork to defraud others about what the product was.”
Further underscoring the egregiousness of the violation, FDA records show that USPlabs knew that OxyElite Pro could cause liver damage, and despite saying it would stop distribution of the product in October 2013, proceeded to try to sell as much of it as it could before pulling it off the shelves.
Other supplement companies that also now find themselves in the government hotbed include Clifford Woods LLC, Optimum Health and Regeneca Worldwide. The Justice Department has filed civil claims against the companies for allegedly illegally selling their products as cures for Alzheimer’s, arthritis and cancer. No medical evidence has been shown that these products treat or cure any of those diseases.
While all this may freak out consumers—as it should—the industry still moves about $5 billion in sales every year, and it’s not all bad. According to nutritionist Paula Simpson, there are a few simple ways you can protect yourself and make sure you’re purchasing from companies that abide by the highest-quality standards in research and safety.
Read the supplement fact label and watch out for products with too many ingredients and “proprietary blends.” A “proprietary blend” is a list of ingredients that are part of a product formula specific to a particular manufacturer. The FDA requires manufacturers to list all of the ingredients in a product on its label, along with the amount of each (in terms of weight), unless the ingredients are part of a proprietary blend—then the specific amount of each individual ingredient in the blend does not need to be listed, only the total. So, it is important to be aware that the exact amount of each ingredient in a proprietary blend (or blend or delivery system) is unknown. This is especially important when a proprietary blend contains stimulant-like ingredients.
Look for third-party stamps of approval. NSF International is an accredited, independent third-party certification body that tests and certifies products to verify that they meet these public health and safety standards. For the U.S., NSF shows companies have put forth the effort to ensure they are selling what they claim on the package. Expiration date/shelf life stamp should also be on the package.
Do your research. Are the product claims backed by credible clinical findings? Watch out for products that make extreme claims with little clinical proof.
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