21st Century Snake Oil in a Capsule (or “The Vitamins You Take Could be Killing You”)
Of the more than 54,000 dietary supplement products….only about a third have some level of safety and effectiveness that is supported by scientific evidence….(and) close to 12 percent have been linked to safety concerns or problems with product quality.
— Consumer Reports
Each and every day, more than half of us ingest some kind of vitamin and/or dietary supplement.
Yet, a significant percentage of these so-called “health and nutrition products” amounts to garbage. Worse, a shockingly high percentage of the tablets and capsules we gulp down by the hundreds of millions which have undergone testing reveals a shameful discovery: Most produce no health benefits whatsoever, nor have they proven to ameliorate the various health conditions and medical symptoms they claim to improve. Worse still, many these bottled toxins are dangerous. Some can even be deadly.
That’s quite a claim, so now I’ll try and back it up.
Most of us take supplements with the best of intentions. We ingest these products faithfully because we think we’re doing something to benefit our health. Be warned, however. If you consume some of the items being sold in health food stores, on the shelves at your local pharmacy, or from gigantic medicine and drug sections at the discount warehouses, you might be doing more harm than good.
There’s no doubt that we’re being lied to. We’re certainly getting conned on a mass scale. From increasing amounts of evidence from various reputable sources that have emerged lately, it appears that we’ve all become reincarnations of the once-gullible prairie folk who used to fall for the charms of snake-oil salesmen. Recall that more than a century ago, unscrupulous scammers typically rolled into small towns. The set up a pitch and promised the townspeople miracle cures. Now, the only difference is — these magical potions have mushroomed into what’s considered to be a respectable $30 billion annual industry. These companies have also hired some of the most powerful lobbyists in the country to avoid regulation and oversight. The closer we look, the more disturbing the picture that emerges. Fact: Many dietary supplements appear to be a hoax of monumental proportions.
Such a strong statement might seem like an exaggeration. One presumes there’s no way our government would allow manufacturers to sell health products that flat out do not work, nor would they idly stand by while outlandish claims are being spewed forth about the health benefits of taking these supplements. Factories are inspected regularly — right? Ingredients are thoroughly tested — right? Product labels and advertisements are carefully scrutinized — right?
Ready for the shocker? Like most people, I just assumed all the dietary supplements and vitamins with sophisticated packaging and labeling sold just about everywhere are perfectly safe for us to take. I presumed all the contents had been rigorously tested and were certified for consumer use. I also believed government agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) exercised total legal oversight over manufacturers and had tested the claims made by marketeers before they were sold to the general public.
Wrong, wrong, and wrong again.
Incredibly, no federal guidelines exist which cover this booming industry, that’s become rife with toxins and outright falsehoods. Manufacturers cleverly skirt potential liability by very carefully wording what’s on the packaging, insinuating there are health benefits (i.e., the essentially meaningless phrase “promotes cardiovascular”) without any actual science to back up their claims. When consumer groups and medical watchdogs raise a stink and demand that congress investigate and take action, the industry’s four powerful lobbying groups always manage to stonewall legislation. The closest the industry has ever came to being regulated by the FDA was 15 years ago. That’s when the campaign contributions started flowing in and the public was bombarded with misleading advertisements run on television. Efforts to clean up this filthy and fraudulent industry collapsed. Such is the free market, so-called “self-regulation,” and American democracy in action.
Consumer Reports, which is about as unbiased a source as exists when it assessing the safety and quality of products, gave this polluted industry a scathing assessment recently. According to CR, more than 54,000 products exist on the market which are classified as dietary supplements and vitamins. Many of the companies manufacturing and distributing these products have attractive healthy-sounding names, often with the words “nature” or “natural” proudly displayed in them. “Organic” is another favorite that’s used often. Instead, the word they should probably be using is “baloney.” Incredibly, about two-thirds of all the products out there on the market do not produce any health benefits, according to the latest scientific evidence. Moreover, slightly more than 1 in 10 of the bottles you see on store shelves have safety concerns and/or problems with product quality. So, two-thirds are junk. One-tenth could be dangerous. These percentages should make us shudder. There should be a massive government-led initiative on this to clean this up.
PBS’ Frontline recently did a disturbing feature story on what’s in dietary supplements and addressed the serious concerns over the lack of regulations. Consider some evidence from that report. Here are a couple of screen shots I took from the documentary:
The photo above shows the product known as “Purity First.” This certainly sounds healthy. From the name alone, the contents would apparently be “pure.” If most of us saw this product on our store shelves, we’d probably be tempted to buy it. Certainly, no one would doubt it’s safety record. However, the Frontline report investigated the owners of this company, which includes a husband and wife, which started out as a home business. Neither of them had any training nor education in anything relating to heath and nutrition, other than the husband works as a chiropractor. The wife, who runs the business full-time, said she learned how to make health products from “visits to the local library.”
One would also think these capsules that contain various vitamins, fish oils, and various minerals essential for healthy living are manufactured in highly-sanitized environments with multiple safeguards. However, the photo above shows the actual location where “Purity First” is manufactured. It looks like a run-down industrial zone, about as controlled as a garage. “Purity First?” In a setting like this? It’s not exactly an image which instills confidence in the product, is it?
The bottom line is — without government oversight this is what happens. What you see here isn’t particularly unusual, either. Don’t take my word for it. I urge you to watch the entire 50-minute episode of Frontline. Here’s the short trailer:
NOTE 1: The full episode can be seen here at the OFFICIAL PBS WEBSITE.
NOTE 2: For those who prefer to read the transcript, go here to the PBS WEBPAGE/TRANSCRIPT.
To be perfectly clear, I’m neither a scientist, nor a nutritionist. I have no training nor background in this subject matter. But, I do have an innate curiosity as to why we continue to allow such widespread fraud. Here’s an industry that’s unregulated, which has spun completely out of control, where MORE THAN HALF THE PRODUCTS ARE PROVEN SCIENTIFICALLY TO NOT WORK. Question: Would we allow any other business sector to get away with such a mind-boggling level of deceit? I doubt it.
Here’s yet another example of why we need more government, not less. Next time you hear the wails and cries of those critical of too much “government regulation,” think back to what’s happening in this dirty industry where falsehood isn’t the exception, but apparently is quite the norm.
Want to learn more about how the vitamins you buy might be doing serious long-term damage? I urge you to read the OFFICIAL FDA WEBPAGE ON DIETARY SUPPLEMENTS. Read this before you step into your local supermarket and head for the section where supplements are sold.
At best, many of the products inside your medicine cabinet could be completely worthless. At worst, they could be dangerous. What you refuse to buy and end up throwing away could end up saving your life.
A Footnote: Also, be very wary of “certification” labels on supplements which look official, as though they are from a some government agency, which are in fact, not. Google some of these products you are ingesting on a regular basis and read the scientific studies as to WHAT’S ACTUALLY CONTAINED IN THE PILLS. Finally I urge readers to get more active politically and stand up to many of these hoaxers who are making huge profits and selling what amounts to snake oil. We need to see this dirty industry cleaned up and federally regulated.