Posted tagged ‘supplements’

Lead, mercury, arsenic—the mystery ingredients lurking in your supplements

December 22, 2014

The Pediatric Insider

© 2014 Roy Benaroch, MD

Vitamins, minerals, and supplements are a huge industry—about $32 billion sold in the USA in 2012. You might think someone in the government would keep an eye on all of those pills to make sure they’re safe, or maybe make sure that what’s in the bottle is what it says on the label.

Fat chance. Current regulations allow essentially no scrutiny of supplements. Anything that had been sold before 1994 can continue to be sold, no questions asked. Though newer substances are supposed to be registered, they don’t have to await approval before hitting the shelves. It is up the FDA, afterwards, to figure out which of these are harmful. That’s in stark contrast to genuine medications, which have to be proven safe and effective before they’re sold.

In 2013, an extensive study using DNA testing looked at several supplements, finding that many pills made of fillers, rice, and weeds. Almost all of the samples contained cheap fillers not listed on the label, and many contained weeds and contaminants that could cause genuine illness. These were bottles of supplements purchased from several retail outlets from the US and Canada, from a variety of companies. Only 2 of the 12 companies had products that were accurately labeled without contamination.

Now, a new study has shown similar problems with both US- and Indian-manufactured Ayurvedic compounds. 193 samples obtained though internet sale sites were analyzed, and 20% contained toxic amounts of lead, mercury, or arsenic.

Previous studies, reviewed here, have shown that many supplements are adulterated with pharmaceutical products—real drugs—not shown on the label, and not legally sold without a prescription. When the FDA investigates, these companies can change the name of the product and keep selling it. Under current law, it is impossible for anyone to enforce safety standards, or even insist that product labels accurately reflect what’s in the bottle. People are not getting what they’re paying for, and people are getting sick from taking potent or toxic chemicals they didn’t expect.

It’s time for vitamins, supplements, and minerals to come out of the shadows. If they’re safe and effective, they ought to be sold—but if they’re just a load of toxic crap and fillers, they ought to be thrown out, and the companies who’re selling them driven out of business. Why are we giving these huge, profitable companies a free pass to lie about what they’re selling and what their products can do to us?

Who needs vitamins?

November 3, 2011

The Pediatric Insider

© 2011 Roy Benaroch, MD

For November, I’m concentrating my writing chops on National Novel Writing Month. Fun! So I’m re-running revised versions of some classic posts. And by classic, I mean “old.” This one was originally from June, 2008. Enjoy!

“Should I give my kids multivitamins?”

Most of the food in the developed world is fortified with multiple vitamins and minerals. With very few exceptions (we’ll talk about those later), vitamin deficiencies are just about unheard of in the United States, at least among children who have ready access to decent food. On the other hand, an ordinary multivitamin with safe doses of vitamins is probably harmless, and may put your mind at ease.

If you’d like to start your children on a multivitamin, I suggest an inexpensive one that tastes good. Any store-brand generic chewable multivitamin for children is absolutely fine and will cover what you need. There are also “Gummi” forms that some kids like. These are usually packaged for dosing in children age 4 years and up. For your 15 month old, ½ of the 4 year dose is probably fine, but check with your own doctor. At 15 months, you should “pre-crush” a ½ chewable tablet and give it mixed into some food. The multivitamins packaged for 15 month olds are liquids that taste terrible. I don’t know if giving the liquid is worth the fight, but you can try!

Remember that vitamins are medicines, and need to be kept out of reach of children. They’re in cute shapes that kids find attractive. An overdose of a vitamin should be immediately reported to a poison center (in the United States, call 800-222-1222.)

I do not recommend that any parent buy expensive, name-brand, or specialty-packaged vitamins. They are just not necessary. A chemical is a chemical, and a vitamin is a vitamin. Some are sold aggressively through shady multilevel marketing schemes—stay well away from those. You’ve got far more important things to spend your money on!

What are the vitamin deficiencies that do still occur in the United States?

Iron deficiency—this is especially common among children in lower socioeconomic groups, but can affect anyone. Good iron sources are fortified breakfast cereal, red meat, beans, peanut butter, and eggs. If your child doesn’t regularly consume these, either ask your pediatrician to screen him for iron deficiency or get him on a multivitamin with iron.

Calcium deficiency—calcium is best obtained from dairy sources. If your child isn’t big on milk, cheese, or yogurt, you’re may have a tough time finding calcium sources. Consider calcium-fortified juice, or a chocolate-like tasty calcium supplement.

Vitamin D—if your child doesn’t spend much time in the sunshine, or has dark skin, she’s at risk for vitamin D deficiency. Milk is vitamin-D fortified, which helps; but you may wish to discuss your exact situation with your physician. Vitamin D deficiency is more common than many people realize.

So: though vitamin deficiencies are rare, a few individual kinds of vitamins and minerals are sometimes easy to miss for certain kids. You do not have to pay a lot to get a good vitamin supplement. Since there is little risk and little expense of giving a supplement to your children, it’s a good idea.

Additional resources:

FDA info on supplements:

US Dept Agriculture food and dietary info:

Info on individual vitamins and what they’re for:


Avoid the ‘roids

August 1, 2009

The Pediatric Insider

© 2009 Roy Benaroch, MD

Mixed news from the world of weightlifting: it turns out that some “supplements” touted to increase muscle mass actually work, but only because they contain dangerous steroids.

The FDA is now warning consumers not to use dietary products that promise to bulk up muscles. These are frequently sold not only at “health food” stores, but also at your local drugstore. They’re often protein powders with manly names like “MuscleMaxx” or “MASS Xtreme” or “GRRR Me Bulky”* sold to …. guess …. males who want big hulky muscles. I used to think these products were just a waste of money, made from waste protein sources, but basically harmless.

It turns out that some of them are laced with genuine anabolic steroids, just like the ones used by your favorite Major League All-Stars. Yes, they’ll bulk-clap-you-up, and yes, they’ll also shrink those testicles down to teeny nubs, make your hair fall out, cause hypertension, osteoporosis, liver failure, and early death by psychotic homicide-suicide. Did I mention the bulky muscles? To some men, apparently, that’s all they’ll hear.

Despite having raided manufacturers and proved that many of these products are made with bioactive and potentially deadly steroids, the FDA has no authority to recall these products. That’s because, you see, they’re not “drugs.” Supplements are a multi-billion dollar industry, complete with their own lobbyists and plenty of money to pay off lawmakers. As long as they don’t claim to be drugs, they’re free from just about any government oversight or regulation. What’s in the bottle? Who knows? How about some toxic heavy metals? Or maybe nothing at all?

If you’d like to bulk up, follow Dr. Roy’s plan for healthy, strong muscles:

  1. Eat a diet rich in complete protein. Nuts, soy, eggs, dairy, and lean meat are all good wholesome protein sources. Don’t waste your money on protein powder.
  2. Get into an exercise routine using resistance training—weights! Work with a trainer or coach to show you how to do it right, avoid injury, and come up with a routine that will match your goals. You can’t make muscles bigger without lifting weights.
  3. Get plenty of sleep. Muscle cells grow efficiently only during sleep.

That’s it. I know especially teenagers like the idea of a powder or supplement that’ll get you looking like this guy (rather than him or him), but there are no shortcuts. You want big? Hit the gym, not the drug store.

* One of these names is real, two are made-up. Guess which ones!

Want some lead with your herbs?

August 28, 2008

A Boston University researcher has found that about 20% of a sampling of traditional Indian remedies sold in the United States had toxic levels of lead, mercury, or arsenic. In a study published this month in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association, about 200 products made by 37 different manufacturers representative of Ayurvedic Medicine were analyzed. It’s especially alarming because these are products meant to be taken daily to improve overall health. Almost all of the contaminated specimens were made here in the USA.

A daily dose of mercury can’t be good.

The FDA is specifically forbidden from regulating “herbs and supplements.” These products might contain what it says on the label, or might not; they might be contaminated with heavy metals or powerful, non-regulated drugs, or they might just contain essentially nothing at all. Their labels can make just about any sort of health-related claim without fear of regulatory reprisals, and without fear that anyone could actually expect some kind of proof that the product does what it says. No safety data is collected or expected.

Shopping in the “supplement” aisle of a big chain drug store or health food store is entirely a guessing game. Most of the products are merely a waste of money, but at least some of them are far, far worse. Beware.