Bee pollen weight loss dietary supplements can sting you

Dietary supplements can contain dangerous drugs

Published: April 10, 2014 07:30 AM

Add a bee pollen supplement to the long list of supposedly "natural" products that are adulterated with prescription drugs. The Food and Drug Administration said earlier this week that a Chinese weight loss supplement, Zi Xiu Tang Bee Pollen, contained sibutramine, which has been linked to heart problems, and phenolphthalein, which is potentially carcinogenic. Both of those drugs were removed from the market years ago.
Notices such as this have gotten so common that, if they were not so serious, it would be almost comical. The FDA has even established a dedicated database on tainted supplements that they say "includes a small fraction of the potentially hazardous products with hidden ingredients marketed to consumers on the internet and in retail establishments."
Why are the problems with supplements so common? They trace their roots to the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act, a law that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. If it were up to Consumer Reports, it would be the laws' final birthday. "DSHEA is a fundamentally flawed law, which affords much more protection to the supplement industry than to the consumer," says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D. Consumer Reports chief medical adviser.

Read more of our coverage on vitamins and minerals and the dangers of dietary supplements.

Harvard researcher and physician, Pieter Cohen, M.D., who authored a recent commentary in the New England Journal of Medicine, agrees. "If consumers and physicians are to have confidence that all supplements are safe, the law regulating supplements must be reformed," he wrote. "Every supplement ingredient should undergo rigorous safety testing before marketing. Until that happens, consumers and physicians cannot be assured that the pills, powders, and potions labeled as dietary supplements are safe for human consumption."

When the DSHEA law was enacted, those in Congress may well have thought that they were protecting the public's right to choose products that they thought were good for their health. I'm sure many, maybe even most, people in the supplement industry don't want to harm anyone. But there are also too many who seem to see profit as their primary objective.  

The year DSHEA was passed, just 4,000 dietary supplements were sold in the U.S. Today, that number is more than 55,000. If the FDA wants to remove a supplement from the marketplace, the current law requires the agency to follow a burdensome process to prove the product is unsafe. "That is quite simply not in the public's best interest," Lipman says.

—Chris Hendel

Editor's Note:

Chris Hendel has been Consumer Reports' chief medical researcher since 1989 and is one of the founders of Consumer Reports on Health, our monthly health newsletter.

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