August 4th, 2010
07:31 PM ET

Report: Dietary supplements pose health risks

Just because a supplement is labeled natural, doesn't mean it is safe, according to an investigation by Consumer Reports.

The report lists 12 ingredients found in supplements  which are linked to serious side effects and which haven’t been shown to do what they claim to do.

They are: aconite, bitter orange, chaparral, colloidal silver, coltsfoot, country mallow, germanium, greater celandine, kava, lobelia, yohimbe.The FDA tells CNN it hasn't been able to determine what scientific basis Consumer Reports is using for their warning.  FDA spokesperson Siobhan DeLancey says the agency has cautioned consumers or provided articles and case studies about possible side effects for 7 of the 12 supplements listed by Consumer Reports (aconite, chaparral, colloidal silver, comfrey, germanium, kava and yohimbe). 

“It is important to note that these potential adverse events are based in large part on a degree of exposure and the duration of that exposure," said DeLancey.  In other words, a specific amount of the ingredient over a specific amount of time.

Problems with dietary supplements have been making headlines for quite some time. Last May, the government’s General Accounting Office (GAO) revealed what it learned in an undercover investigation of the deceptive or dangerous marketing of herbal supplements.

Since 1994, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has had limited powers to regulate dietary supplements due to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA).

Before DSHEA was signed into law by President Clinton, the FDA says dietary supplements were subject to the same regulatory requirements as were other foods.  Since 1994, it’s up to the manufacturer to determine that the supplements it manufactures or distributes are safe.

“DSHEA tells the FDA to assume all supplements are safe until proven guilty,” said Dr. Pieter Cohen, an internist at Cambridge Health Alliance and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

While Consumer Reports lists 12 dangerous ingredients, Cohen is concerned about some unscrupulous manufacturers who he said are putting  pharmaceuticals into supplements.  The doctor said they are making some people very sick– including some of his patients.  Cohen had supplements his patients were taking analyzed.  He shared his view in “American Roulette," an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine last October.

Cohen is very concerned about two scenarios not highlighted in the new Consumer Reports article.  Some supplements contain “multiple [prescription] drugs in the same pill” and some supplements contain adulterated versions of existing drugs.  For example, a manufacturer could take the formula for an approved erectile dysfunction drug and add or subtract a few hydrogen or oxygen atoms – thus making the drug undetectable, but also basically creating a new drug which has not been tested or approved by anyone.  “It’s  beyond irresponsible,” said Cohen.

Of course consumers aren’t expecting any drugs in their supplements if they’re being listed as "natural.”

Cohen believes people need to be aware that they could be buying a supplement from a store or on the internet that can cause serious harm to them.  He said, “.. without the public changing their perception of what's going on nothing will change.”  The FDA can’t change anything unless Congress changes the law.  Cohen added that ”.. powerful forces want to keep the lax regulatory framework."

CNN asked U.S. Pharmacopeia, a non-profit group that sets voluntary standards for supplement manufacturers, about the Consumer Reports investigation. It did not specifically address the supplement ingredients in question but  invited people who want to learn more about supplements to visit their website.

The FDA’s DeLancey said the agency encourages consumers to report any adverse events through its MedWatch system.

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soundoff (199 Responses)
  1. Greg

    I read an article on Yohimbe once (one of the 12 listed to stay away from). It definitely can be dangerous if not used properly. That's why I always recommend people do the research before buying a supplement natural energy supplement

    August 12, 2010 at 00:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Nahrungsergänzung

    Natural Supplements are the best and without side effects, but that is true it should be taken with an expert advice and in nominal quantity.

    September 22, 2010 at 04:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. sondi

    Do Tolerance Mapping when taking supplements. Start with small dosage than the prescribed dosage till you feel your body have adapted to it

    December 17, 2010 at 08:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. zach braverman

    This is scary, considering how people are so into all kinds of dietary supplements nowadays to make up for their lifestyle.

    December 21, 2010 at 13:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. mrhealthypacks

    Well i think it depends on how we used and apply it. In proper used of this health supplement i think there's no things to worried about. But the very much important thing, asked yourself first. Do you really need this supplement? Thanks for posting this!

    January 10, 2011 at 23:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. pagingdrgupta.blogs.cnn.com

    Report dietary supplements pose health risks.. Smashing 🙂

    April 18, 2011 at 04:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Dominique

    I will be quite frank with you. Once the reference is outside the FDA, one will often find quite conflicting international studies that contradict the given findings of the FDA.

    May 19, 2011 at 14:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. allen ethan

    nice one.. keep posting


    July 14, 2011 at 03:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Jon Warne

    You are right but ,if we take supplements with proper care and in limited amount then it will be not harmful.

    August 31, 2011 at 11:23 | Report abuse | Reply
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    Nice article. its really useful. getting diet supplements without any expert suggestion is not good.

    November 4, 2011 at 02:04 | Report abuse | Reply
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  15. Alley James

    FDA FDA where is FDA. if they say that dietry supplements are health risk then stop taking the,m and start nutritional supplements, energy supplements and etc etc etc. lots and lots of categories around the world.

    May 15, 2012 at 07:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Fariza

    I looked up all of these supplements on the Natural Standard database. Natural Standard was founded by healthcare providers and researchers to provide high-quality, evidence-based information about complementary and alternative medicine including dietary supplements and integrative therapies. Grades reflect the level of available scientific data for or against the use of each therapy for a specific medical condition. The only supplement that has strong scientific evidence to back up its use is Kava for the treatment of anxiety. All the other supplements have unclear on conflicting evidence. It is important to understand the benefits and the harms and consider what evidence there is to support natural therapies before trying them or recommending them.

    June 21, 2012 at 16:44 | Report abuse | Reply
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    I can Say You are right but ,if we'll use in limit and proper care then it will be not harmful.

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    Yet any supplement if taken without any medical advice can be injurious to health but it seems to be new that a supplement that is natural can also be harmful if not taken under proper guidance and yet it is also obvious that it should be taken under proper guidance because certain ingredients can also harm the person's immunity!!!

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.