There are two types of people in this world: those who believe in the power of supplements and those who, well, don’t. Some folks swear that supplements make them feel better, while others swear that the often-pricey pills are just well-packaged placebos. No matter what camp you are a part of, it’s important to note that supplements may not always be what they seem. In fact, there is a real, very scary gray area that is attached to these pills–and it has nothing to do with efficacy or marketing.

A new study published in JAMA Network Open shows that a plethora of unapproved pharmaceutical ingredients are components in many of the popular supplements taken in America today. Included in this category of supplements are OTC vitamins, minerals, botanicals, amino acids, enzymes, and basically, anything else found in the vitamin aisle of your local Walmart store.

The reason why pharmaceutical ingredients are being found in these supplements is because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only a loose grasp on the supplement market, making it one of the most widely unregulated markets in its jurisdiction. Even scarier is the fact that the agency discovered “undeclared, unapproved pharmaceutical ingredients” in roughly 776 OTC products between 2007 to 2016. 

It’s a particularly distressing statistic for a variety of reasons, the main one being that the FDA technically only inspects a small number of supplements per year, which leads many to believe that a good percentage of tainted supplements hit the shelves–and stay on the shelves without anyone being the wiser.

So, is it time for all of us to throw out our supplements? It’s a tricky question to answer as not all products have been found to be dangerous. That said, the FDA did find that most of the tainted lots share a common thread.

According to data compiled by the agency and published in the aforementioned report, 98% of the contamination occurred in a handful of different supplement categories–sexual enhancement, weight loss, osteoporosis, joint pain, bone cancer, muscle building, and more.

In these supplements, ingredients used in prescription-only medications were apparent. For instance, the FDA discovered traces of a generic Viagra, as well as sibutramine (a banned, highly-dangerous weight-loss drug) and even synthetic steroids.

After years of accumulating such troubling findings, the agency decided to send warnings to a whopping 146 separate supplement companies, but, unfortunately for the consumer, many ignored the notices and continue to sell the contaminated products.

So, what’s the moral to this story? For one, all supplement-takers in this country need to know that the FDA does not have their backs when it comes to these OTC products. And, even when the agency does attempt to make a change, oftentimes the warnings fall on deaf ears.

In an editorial written in response to the studyPieter Cohen, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, warns consumers to stay far away from these supplements, specifically ones marketing for sexual enhancement, weight loss, and muscle building. Until the government puts more stringent laws into effect, the FDA will never be able to keep up with the rampant contamination. 

Very scary stuff, folks. It’s probably time to take a good, hard look at the items in your medicine cabinet–and say ‘goodbye’ to many!

What are your thoughts on this shocking report? Are you surprised that much of the supplements industry remains unregulated? How do you stay healthy without taking supplements?