Supplement Issues & Horror Stories
There have been a lot of professional athletes over the last 20+ years who have blamed supplements for a multitude of problems- from poor performance, to failed drug tests, and everything in-between. Another common issue has been these supplement companies being sued for many infractions, most commonly banned substances being found during third party testing. This has been in the news a lot more over the last few years as major companies are going out of business due to bankruptcy to avoid further lawsuits.
Why are they being sued?
The biggest thing that supplement companies get sued for is the use of banned substances not on their ingredient list on their labels. Remember that supplements are not subject to the same stringent requirements as food by the FDA, they fall under something called the DSHEA with much looser requirements on packaging, preparation and labeling.
This means supplement companies can put ingredients and substances in their products that are not tested and not accounted for, which can lead to long term issues for the people taking it. This includes lack of results for those taking the supplements, potential failed drug tests and even health issues because the person taking them was unaware of exactly what it contained.
One of the bigger names to be sued and has led to their bankruptcy, is Blackstone Labs. Prior to the allegations it was a multimillion-dollar company and had been around for years. The supplement that the FDA found was adulterated and began their investigation. Their pre-workout, called Angel Dust… as if that wasn’t enough of a red flag. From that point in 2015, it took 4 years for the FDA, and federal government, to mount a case against them. This has led to 14 counts of fraud, and other felonies along with them being sued for millions of dollars in damages.
How common are adverse reactions?
A recent study counted all of the supplement adverse events with people under the age of 25 from 2004-2015. The study found 977 events. Of those, specifically supplements that were marketed for “muscle building” and “fat loss” led to the majority of the adverse reactions (Flora, 2019). The study goes on to break down the numbers even further, showing that supplements marketed for these reasons were 3x’s more likely to have severe medical events, compared to vitamins. The mean age of the people who had adverse reactions is quite young, 11 in females and 16 in males. That is clearly a small snapshot of people who likely do not need to be taking supplements at all and were either unsupervised or made poor decisions with parental assistance. It does, however show how poorly understood and researched the products are by the people who have them in their house.
Another study, done longitudinally, from 2007-2016 showed that 776 adulterated supplements were identified by the FDA. With that, 146 supplement companies were implicated in those cases (Tucker, 2018). These results also showed that supplements with marketing claims for “fat loss” and “muscle building” most commonly contained unlisted and illegal ingredients. This study also showed a large number of sexual reproduction supplements that were also adulterated, with ingredients that were not listed on the label or failed to meet claims. This study continued by showing that 306 of the products could not even be traced back to their original manufacturer. This means that those products were made and sold on the internet without the sellers having any potential consequences for creating illegal supplements. These were sold without the potential of a governing body to indict the company responsible for putting what was often pharmaceutical grade level drugs into supplements without labels or warnings. Any time there is a pharmaceutical grade drug in a supplement it immediately makes them illegal (Tucker, 2018).
The Tucker study would also show that many of the supplement companies’ products had already been tested and were found with issues. This led to them being warned 1-2 times prior to these events, and the companies did not comply with the FDA to change the formula. Seemingly, the companies were willing to deal with the lawsuits and other issues. This is a multi-BILLION dollar industry and often the rewards outweigh the punishment. Supplement companies will also declare bankruptcy to avoid paying legal fees and then start a similar company under another name. This makes it even more important for athletes to use NSF or other third-party certified products.
Remember also, that the FDA does NOT test ALL products. So, while these companies got caught due to the FDA’s randomized 3rd party testing, or the FDA was made aware of the potential tainted products, the majority of companies are NOT ever tested. This, potentially, means many more companies and products on the market today are selling adulterated products.
This is not to say that all of the supplement companies are bad. This evidence of mislabeling and potential adverse reactions does, however, show it is important to research and check the supplement’s safety before taking. This can include checking if it has been third party tested, reading reviews from medical journals or other trustworthy resources, consulting with our PP dietitians and coaching staff, or seeking opinion from other well researched medical professionals.
Take Home Message –
This wasn’t meant to scare or intimidate people from buying supplements. You do, however, need to be vigilant about what you put in your body. Do your homework when it comes to deciding on whether to take supplements or not. IF you decide to move forward, make sure you choose products that are third party if you are being tested and confirm their safety.
- Flora Or, Yongjoo Kim, Juliana Simms, S. Bryn Austin. Taking Stock of Dietary Supplements’ Harmful Effects on Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults. Journal of Adolescent Health, June 5, 2019; DOI: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2019.03.005
- Pomeranz J.L., Barbosa G., Killian C., Austin S.B. The dangerous mix of adolescents and dietary supplements for weight loss and muscle building: Legal strategies for state action. J Public Health Manag Pract.2015; 21: 496-503
- Tucker,J, Fischer,T, Upjohn, L, et al. Unapproved Pharmaceutical Ingredients Included in Dietary Supplements Associated With US Food and Drug Administration Warnings. October 12, 2018. doi:1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.3337