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Supplements often hold harmful stuff

BY MARILYNN MARCHIONE • ASSOCIATED PRESS • JUNE 10, 2009

Lead in ginkgo pills. Arsenic in herbals. Bugs in a baby's colic and teething syrup. Toxic metals and parasites are part of nature, and all of these have been found in "natural" products and dietary supplements in recent years.


et aside the issue of whether vitamin and herbal supplements do any good. Are they safe? Is what's on the label really what's in the bottle? Tests by researchers and private labs suggest the answer sometimes is no. One quarter of supplements tested by an independent company over the last decade have had some sort of problem. Some contained contaminants. Others had contents that did not match label claims. Some had ingredients that exceeded safe limits. Some contained real drugs masquerading as natural supplements.

"We buy it just as the consumer buys it" from stores, said Dr. Tod Cooperman, president of ConsumerLab.com. The company tests pills for makers that want its seal of approval, and publishes ratings for subscribers, much as Consumer Reports does with household goods.

Other tests, reported in scientific journals, found prenatal vitamins lacking claimed amounts of iodine and supplements short on ginseng and hoodia -- an African plant sparking the latest diet craze.

"There's at least 10 times more hoodia sold in this country than made in the world, so people are not getting hoodia," said Dr. Mehmet Oz, a heart surgeon and frequent Oprah Winfrey guest who occasionally has touted the stuff.

Industry groups say that quality problems are the exception rather than the rule.

"I believe that the problem is narrow, that the well-established and reputable brands deserve their reputations," said Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association.

Of course, prescription drugs have had problems, too. Dozens of deaths were linked last year to tainted heparin, a blood thinner produced in China, for example. However, pharmaceutical drugs must show evidence to the government of safety and effectiveness before they go on sale. Not so for dietary supplements.

 


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