When It Comes to Supplements, What’s Really in the Bottle?

Share:

January 19, 2016

It’s estimated that half of all Americans take a health supplement every day, from fish oil to multivitamins to diet pills.

The more than $30 billion vitamins and supplements industry says these products can make consumers healthier.

But Supplements and Safety, a FRONTLINE investigation in collaboration with The New York Times that premieres tonight, raises tough questions about how vitamins and supplements are marketed and regulated, and examines how it’s often hard to know what’s really in the bottles you’re buying.

In short, unlike with medical drugs, companies making vitamins and supplements do not have to prove that their products are safe and effective before putting them on the market — unless they’re introducing a new ingredient that’s never been marketed before.

That fact wasn’t sitting well with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, one of the nation’s leading pediatric hospitals, as a dramatic scene from Supplements and Safety recounts.

Pharmacists there were seeing families “showing up literally with shopping bags full of dietary supplements,” Sarah Erush, the hospital pharmacy’s clinical manager, tells FRONTLINE in the below excerpt from the film.

Erush was concerned: If a patient or their family brings a medication into the hospital, pharmacists are required to verify that the medication is what its packaging says, that it’s labeled appropriately and that it’s being dosed appropriately — but no such requirements exist for supplements.

So in 2013, Erush and her colleagues took action. They decided to ask supplements manufacturers to prove that their labels were accurate by submitting certificates of analysis from an independent party.

Ninety percent of the companies never responded, says Erush’s colleague, Paul Offit, M.D.

“And of the 10 percent that responded, often, they would send us certificates of analysis where what was on the label wasn’t even close to what was in the bottle,” according to Offit.

Those kinds of discrepancies could have dire consequences, especially for the hospital’s tiniest and most vulnerable patients. In the below scene, Erush gives correspondent Gillian Findlay the example of a vitamin D drop that was going to premature infants where the true dosage was more than double the amount necessary.

“So if we’re dosing premature infants who need very tiny doses of this drug, we’re now potentially giving them double what they should get, and could really put them at risk for toxicity,” Erush says.

In the end, only 35 supplements met the hospital’s standards.

Erush was left, in her words, “worried and dismayed.”

It is a complete unknown when you are buying a dietary supplement, unless you have some proof of what is in that product,” she says. “It could be anything.”

For more on how supplements are labeled, marketed and regulated, watch FRONTLINE’s Supplements and Safety starting tonight, Tues., Jan. 19, on PBS and online at 10 p.m. E.S.T./9 p.m. C.S.T. Check your local PBS station for details. The documentary is a co-production with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in collaboration with The New York Times.


Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@ptaddonio

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

blog comments powered by Disqus

More Stories

Most Minneapolis Voters Believe Crime Is on the Rise, New Poll Finds
An overwhelming majority of likely Minneapolis voters say crime is on the rise, a view strongly held by residents of every race, gender and age group across the city, according to a new Minnesota poll, our Local Journalism Initiative partner the Star Tribune reports.
September 18, 2021
Minnesota Poll: Most Minneapolis Voters Want Reform, Not Fewer Cops
A clear majority of Minneapolis voters oppose reducing the size of the city’s police force — a feeling that’s especially strong among Black voters, according to a new poll. At the same time, voters are showing support for replacing the police department with a new agency, our Local Journalism Initiative partner the Star Tribune finds.
September 18, 2021
Get the Backstory on Duterte’s ‘War on Drugs’ as ICC Green Lights Investigation into Philippines Killings
With the International Criminal Court authorizing an official investigation into Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody “war on drugs," these two documentaries and one podcast episode offer context.
September 17, 2021
What Has Happened to Boeing Since the 737 Max Crashes
Since 346 people were killed in two crashes involving Boeing 737 Max planes in 2018 and 2019, the airplane maker has faced a number of changes. Here, a brief look.
September 14, 2021