When people are suffering chronic pain they tend to reassess how they care for their body with a view of slowing any further deterioration.

These days, it is common to turn to dietary supplements. Our supermarket and pharmacies have aisles dedicated to herbs, vitamins and minerals transformed into coloured pills promising to improve our healthy, well being and performance. But are they really giving us the health benefits shown on the label?

Unfortunately, it appears that consumers are not getting what they are paid for. Studies in Australia, the UK and the USA have all shown that a lot of supplements are contaminated or do not have the advertised amount of product inside each capsule or pill.

The New York Times reported that “in pills labeled ginkgo biloba, the agency found only rice, asparagus and spruce, an ornamental plant commonly used for Christmas decorations.” This was from five out of six samples taken from GNC which has a substantial presence across Australian shopping centres.

The fraudulent activity continues. According to the Guardian Australia, a study of 32 fish oil supplements undertaken in early 2015 of predominantly Australian and New Zealand brands found that only 3 had the levels of omega-3 fatty acids that were pronounced on the label. Furthermore, despite being within best before dates they showed very high levels of oxidation which actually make the products harmful to health.

Supplements aimed at weight loss and athletic performance were also prone to testing positive to steroids and stimulants that may lead to disqualification from elite sporting events by bodies such as ASADA. Another website inform us that “In the USA the FDA has discovered more than 140 contaminated products, but these represent only a fraction of the contaminated supplements on the market.”

These are very disappointing findings that come on top of long held views in some quarters that unless treating diagnosed deficiencies, supplements are not doing anything but reducing the weight of your bank balance. While no one likes being swindled, there is real danger when someone takes unknown supplements. Like any consumable that is mislabelled there is unknown risk of suffering allergic reactions or doctors are unable to identify interference or reactions with known medications or substances a patient is taking.

Part of the problem may lie in the fact that supplements are not really food, nor medicine but fall into their own category of consumables. As such, which government bodies are responsible for regulating them? The fact is, our society relies on government to regulate industries to keep us from being frauded, and put at risk. It appears that the supplements industry, having exploded in size over the last decade, has managed to escape a lot of the scrutiny reserved for prescription medication.

The fact we look to “natural” remedies in the age of modern medicine is not surprising; it is a tradition that has been around since hunter and gatherers learned to identify plants with beneficial properties. More recently, our ancestors would buy potions at the local apothecary to fix their ailments. Today, there is a global industry dedicated to producing and selling supplements that are easy for everyone to access that the government is responsible for regulating and enforcing.

People who care about their health need to be aware that health claims on labels are a poor substitute for finding essential amino acids, fibres, minerals and vitamins in a balanced diet. A trusted, qualified physician should be the first person you talk to if you are considering supplements, to see if they can really help you.

Further Reading:
http://www.forbes.com/sites/emilywillingham/2013/11/07/study-herbal-supplements-full-of-contaminants-substitutes-and-fillers/
http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199809173391204
http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/03/sidebar-whats-in-those-supplements/?_r=0
https://www.aspet.org/Advocacy/FDA,_Botanical_Research_and_Dietary_Supplements/NEJM_Article_on_Contaminated_Dietary_Supplements/
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278691510006721
https://theconversation.com/safety-of-contaminated-vitamins-and-nutritional-supplements-cant-be-left-to-consumers-39901
http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/jan/21/fish-oil-rules-reviewed-as-study-reveals-consumers-are-being-hoodwinked?CMP=soc_567&ct=t()