By Nickie Hayes
Are you aware that dietary supplements and performance-enhancing substances can actually be more harmful than beneficial? Some substances sold on the market are not always what they seem to be.
It is important to know when taking supplements or any type of performance-enhancing drug what you are actually ingesting. However, this can be a difficult task to take on. On the “Supplement Facts” part of the supplement label, manufacturers are not required to put the exact quantities of each ingredient. So, even if the ingredients seem good for you, they may not be because they may exceed the recommended dietary allowance per day.
Lisa Vicencio is the associate head of athletic training at SUNY Plattsburgh, a certified athletic trainer and instructor, and a SUNY Plattsburgh professor. She has been teaching a course on supplements and ergogenic aids since the early 2000s.
“On today’s market, this is a $40 billion industry, and between 20 and 30 percent all supplements have been found to contain either banned or illegal substances, or do not disclose all of the ingredients in their products,” said Vicencio.
There are a lot of factors that go into finding a supplement or performance-enhancing drug that is safe, effective and drugs that come from a reliable company. Vicencio said it is not an easy chore to find information about supplements.
“How do you make sure a supplement is safe when there are over 75,000 supplements on the market, where less than one percent are tested and even fewer are certified?”
Since the 1994 Dietary Health Supplement Education Act, the FDA’s involvement deals primarily with supplements after they have already been put on the market, she said. The FDA does not regulate supplements or certify them before they are put on the shelves.
“It is important for consumers to know that supplements are not regulated by the FDA in the same sense over-the-counter drugs or prescription drugs are,” she said.
Vicencio said the FDA only comes into play if a supplement on the market is found to cause health issues or a manufacturer has made false claims about their supplement. As well, she said because of this act; it is only on the manufacturers to ensure the safety and efficacy of their products.
“Researchers in 2020 are looking at over 1,000 supplements that were identified by the FDA as not having all the ingredients within the product, on the label,” Vicencio said.
However, there are ways to lessen the risk while taking substances. Vicencio said that the first step when finding out if a supplement is right for you is asking yourself if you actually need it. The second step is to ensure that the manufacturer has scientific evidence to support what they are claiming their product does. The third step is to consult with your physician to ensure no interactions between the supplement you wish to take and pre-existing medications you are already taking.
If you do end up buying the supplement, make sure that you are purchasing it from a reliable source with third-party verification, she said.
“What that means is that an outside company, like the National Supplement Federation, is checking and certifying these products,” Vicencio said.
She said the United States Pharmacopeia, Consumer Labs, Natural Products Association and NSF International are all reputable sources when it comes to supplements. As well, their stamp indicates that they have been at least reviewed by a third party. So, she said, that can ensure that all the product ingredients are on the label.
According to SupplementQuality.com, these four organizations perform quality testing and inspections of supplements and/or manufacturing plants. It also shows the seals of these organizations that you can find on labels to help verify supplements quality, safety and efficacy.
Vicencio said contacting the manufacturer directly may not give the consumer any more information than what is on the label. So, these third-party organizations, along with the FDA and USADA, can fill in the blanks of your supplement research.
She said there are more ways to make sure a supplement is adequate, like finding single-ingredient supplements or reading through the manufacturer’s claims.
“If the company is making claims that sound too good to be true, chances are, they are,” Vicencio said.
Additionally, she said supplement manufacturers are prohibited from claiming that their products mitigate or cure any diseases.
Vicencio said personally if one of her athletes comes to her wanting to take a supplement, she and the Fitness and Wellness department at SUNY Plattsburgh will use Drug Free Sport. Drug Free Sport is a company that will test drugs and supplements for banned or illegal substances. However, she said she does discourage her athletes from taking supplements.
“Our institution is a part of Drug Free Sport, so we can email them and they can send me back a listing that categorizes the supplement on its safety,” she said.
Vicencio said there are no supplements that do not require any research before purchasing and administering. For example, protein, creatine, vitamins and mineral supplements that might not seem too bad should still be examined by the consumer. Consulting a nutritionist or dietitian is important to make sure that you are not exceeding the recommended dietary allowance per day.
Harry Foley is a workout and gym enthusiast from Poughkeepsie, New York. He is a full-time student at SUNY New Paltz, with a major in history, and is a pizza delivery driver. In his free time he loves to exercise, but also uses supplements. Foley purchases them from his local grocery store.
“I use Body Fortress Whey Protein, and I use about 60 grams of that per day, along with other meals that are high in protein,” said Foley.
He also used to purchase Muscle Milk in the past, but that upset his stomach. He has moved to using the Body Fortress Whey Protein because it is supposed to be lactose-free and suitable for people who are sensitive to lactose.
Foley also said that he does research his supplements. He said it is interesting to understand the daily recommended allowance of different substances, and does this to make sure he is taking a proper amount of protein. He also said the ingredients in the whey protein he takes are easy to understand but does make sure to look up anything he does not know off.
Vicencio said the supplements that tend to have extremely high risk are testosterone precursors, pre-workouts, weight loss supplements and sexual enhancing products. Before you take any of these supplements, spend extra time in research and consideration.
If you are an athlete, Vicencio said it is beneficial to know the banned substances lists while researching your supplements. The NCAA, the USADA and the WADA have banned substances lists for athletes that can be found 2020-21 NCAA Banned Substances | NCAA.org – The Official Site of the NCAA, Athlete Guide to the 2020 Prohibited List | US Anti-Doping Agency, and The Prohibited List | World Anti-Doping Agency respectively.
Vicencio said consumer research is essential to understanding supplements’ safety and transparency of a company. One can do this by looking into the company, confirming their track record for the company’s reliability and seeing if they do third party verification.
“There are a lot of companies that put out good products, but there are also a lot of companies that don’t,” Vicencio said.
Deborah Travis, a certified and licensed nutritionist in New York, owns a local supplement store called The Health Connection. She graduated from New York University and has been working within the field ever since. She has been in business for 30 years. Her store in Poughkeepsie, New York, has been there for the past 14 years, and before that, her store was in Highland, New York, for 16 years.
Travis orders her products in a manner to ensure her customers safety.
“I research them before I put them in my store. I make sure where the raw materials come from, I make sure the fish oils are PVC free, mercury-free and make sure they don’t ruin the environment either,” she said.
She said she has never had a product recalled for safety or health reasons, but she has had products taken off the shelves because they actually worked more like medicine than a supplement. However, once the FDA reapproved them as a dietary supplement, they returned to her store and were authorized to be sold.
However, not all supplement stores take the care that Travis does when ordering their new supplemental products. There are resources to help start your supplement researching efforts. The FDA has a hotline that you can call to see if your supplement has any banned ingredients or non-disclosed ingredients. That number is 1-888-INFO-FDA or 1-888-463-6332.
You can search for your supplement on these websites to see if these organizations have verified its safety or have not. These include ConsumerLab.com: Independent Tests and Reviews of Vitamin, Mineral, and Herbal Supplements, Certified Products Search | NSF International Certified for Sport®, USP Verification Services and Home | US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).
The web pages Are Your Supplements Safe? Here’s How to Tell and FDA Finds Hidden Drugs in Nearly 50 Dietary Supplements Sold on Amazon, eBay are reliable sources to start your research. If you have any questions, the National Institutes of Health also has a website for frequently asked questions about dietary supplements. That can be found on the website Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ).