Supplements Contaminated with Banned Drugs

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Dietary supplements are safe, right? I mean they’re just supplements…after all if they were really serious they’d be “drugs,” right? Wrong.

According to a recent study published in JAMA, numerous banned pharmaceutical ingredients (drugs) were found in dietary supplements following FDA recalls — including anabolic steroids, anorexiants, and Viagra.

Dr. Pieter Cohen of Harvard Medical School and his colleagues investigated supplements that were recalled by the FDA due to “adulteration with pharmaceutical ingredients,” yet were still available for purchase after the FDA ban.1

“The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) initiates class I drug recalls when products have the reasonable possibility of causing serious adverse health consequences or death.”

Researchers queried the FDA ban list from January 1, 2009 to December 31, 2012 for supplements that were found to contain drugs and recalled, for which 274 supplements were banned. Of those 274 banned supplements, 27 of them were still available online (directly from the supplement manufacturers or retailers) between July and August of 2013 — that’s 10%; purchased an average of 34.3 months after the FDA ban.

After further analyzing those 27 supplements, they found that 18 of the 27, or 66.7%, still had one or more banned pharmaceutical adulterant; and 6 of the 27 (22%) contained one or more banned ingredient that the FDA didn’t even identify.

What kinds of compounds were present in these dietary supplements? In sports supplements, the primary adulterant was anabolic steroids or compounds with a similar structure to anabolic steroids. For weight loss supplements the primary adulterant was sibutramine or similar compounds (anorexiants), which was taken off of the market—even for prescription use—due to increased risk of heart attacks and stroke. For sexual enhancement supplements, the primary adulterants were different varieties of the famous blue pill: Viagra (sildenafil).


Drugs In Dietary Supplements — What It All Means

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Let’s review the key facts:

  • (1) Over a three year period the FDA banned 274 supplements
  • (2) 27 of those supplements were still available for purchase online at least 6 months after being banned; on average, they were bought 34.3 months after the FDA recall
  • (3) 7% of all recalled supplements still contained a banned substance, and were available for purchase
  • (4) 6 of the 27 supplements still available for purchase contained pharmaceuticals the FDA didn’t know about

In the United States, dietary supplements have very loose regulations compared to the pharmaceutical industry. The key here is understanding what this means as a consumer.

The fact that the FDA didn’t know that 8 supplements had an unknown adulterant is alarming and brings to question how many more supplements out there actually contained drugs that weren’t detected. As a consumer, the first approach to minimize exposure to potentially dangerous supplements is to limit the amount of unnecessary supplements you’re using. is a great places to start educating yourself on which products, ingredients, and supplements work and which don’t.

Aside from limiting use, it’s best to buy from well known supplement companies that have their products tested by a third party. One of the most well-known supplement certifications is through the NSF; look for their logo to rest assured that you’re getting a supplement free of any drugs or banned substances. You should also rely on credible retailers.

For more on the NSF certification process, check out their website.

Ultimately the responsibility lies in the hands of the consumer. Choose your supplements wisely.

References   [ + ]

1.Cohen PA, Maller G, DeSouza R, Neal-Kababick J. Presence of Banned Drugs in Dietary Supplements Following FDA Recalls. JAMA. 2014;312(16):1691-1693. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.10308