The Dirty Dozen: 12 Dangerous Supplements Easily Found In Stores And Online

We Americans do love our dietary supplements. More than half of the adult population have taken them to stay healthy, lose weight, gain an edge in sports or in the bedroom, and avoid using prescription drugs. In 2009, we spent $26.7 billion on them, according to the Nutrition Business Journal, a trade publication. What consumers might not realize, though, is that supplement manufacturers routinely, and legally, sell their products without first having to demonstrate that they are safe and effective.

The Food and Drug Administration has not made full use of even the meager authority granted it by the industry–friendly 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA).

As a result, the supplement marketplace is not as safe as it should be.

  • We have identified a dozen supplement ingredients that we think consumers should avoid because of health risks, including cardiovascular, liver, and kidney problems. We found products with those ingredients readily available in stores and online.
  • Because of inadequate quality control and inspection, supplements contaminated with heavy metals, pesticides, or prescription drugs have been sold to unsuspecting consumers. And FDA rules covering manufacturing quality don’t apply to the companies that supply herbs, vitamins, and other raw ingredients.
  • China, which has repeatedly been caught exporting contaminated products, is a major supplier of raw supplement ingredients. The FDA has yet to inspect a single factory there.

The lack of oversight leaves consumers like John Coolidge, 55, of Signal Mountain, Tenn., vulnerable. He started taking a supplement called Total Body Formula to improve his general health. But instead, he says, beginning in February 2008, he experienced one symptom after another: diarrhea, joint pain, hair loss, lung problems, and fingernails and toenails that fell off. “It just tore me up,” he said.

Eventually, hundreds of other reports of adverse reactions to the product came to the attention of the FDA, which inspected the manufacturer’s facilities and tested the contents of the products. Most of the samples contained more than 200 times the labeled amount of selenium and up to 17 times the recommended intake of chromium, according to the FDA.

In March 2008 the distributor voluntarily recalled the products involved. Coolidge is suing multiple companies for compensatory damages; they have denied the claims in court papers. His nails and hair have grown back, but he said he still suffers from serious breathing problems.

The Dirty Dozen

Working with experts from the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, an independent research group, we identified a group of ingredients (out of nearly 1,100 in the database) linked to serious adverse events by clinical research or case reports. To come up with our dozen finalists, we also considered factors such as whether the ingredients were effective for their purported uses and how readily available they were to consumers. We then shopped for them online and in stores near our Yonkers, N.Y., headquarters and easily found all of them for sale in June 2010.

The dozen are (in alphabetical order):

  1. aconite
  2. bitter orange
  3. chaparral
  4. colloidal silver
  5. coltsfoot
  6. comfrey
  7. country mallow
  8. germanium
  9. greater celandine
  10. kava
  11. lobelia
  12. yohimbe.

The FDA has warned about at least eight of them, some as long ago as 1993.

Why are they still for sale? Two national retailers we contacted about specific supplements said they carried them because the FDA has not banned them. The agency has “the authority to immediately remove them from the market, and we would follow the FDA recommendation,” said a spokeswoman for the Vitamin Shoppe chain.

Most of the products we bought had warning labels, but not all did. A bottle of silver we purchased was labeled “perfectly safe,” with an asterisked note that said the FDA had not evaluated the claim. In fact, the FDA issued a consumer advisory about silver (including colloidal silver) in 2009, with good reason: Sold for its supposed immune system “support,” it can permanently turn skin bluish-gray.

Janis Dowd, 56, of Bartlesville, Okla., says she started taking colloidal silver in 2000 after reading online that it would keep her Lyme disease from returning. She says her skin changed color so gradually that she didn’t notice, but others did. “They kept saying, ‘You look a little blue.'”

Laser treatments have erased almost all the discoloration from Dowd’s face and neck, but she said it’s not feasible to treat the rest of her body.

Under the DSHEA, it is difficult for the FDA to put together strong enough evidence to order products off the market. To date, it has banned only one ingredient, ephedrine alkaloids. That effort dragged on for a decade, during which ephedra weight-loss products were implicated in thousands of adverse events, including deaths. Instead of attempting any more outright bans, the agency issued warnings, detained imported products, and asked companies to recall products it considered unsafe. -Consumer Reports Health

For more information, visit our sister-site, Consumer Reports Health. In addition to providing more information about dangerous supplements, they also chose 11 that have been shown to likely be safe.

12 supplements you should avoid [Consumer Reports Health]

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  1. smo0 says:

    I’d say sure… except for this “colloidal silver.”

    I don’t see how it’s not regulated by the FDA considering it’s in many pharmaceuticals…. including many creams and ointments designed to treat wound and burn care……

    • speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

      The difference between “used topically” and “used internally.” Understand it.

  2. Underpants Gnome says:

    Anybody who has ever thought about taking the colloidal silver should read the articles on Paul Karason… He looks like Papa Smurf

    http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/22536241

    • denros says:

      I’ll bet the cosplayers / furries are into it.

    • HoJu says:

      That dude “made” his own colloidal silver and did a horrible job of it. He also drank too much. Waaaaaaay too much.
      Colloidal silver is good for certain things. I’ve used it to treat rashes and other topical conditions. I would never drink it. Silver is designed to kill things on contact. I don’t want that in me.

  3. Telekinesis123 says:

    I had a horrible reaction to melatonin, rather than putting me to sleep like it was supposed to my body became incredibly tired but my mind was wide awake and going a mile a minute. It was a horrible feeling of two opposites at once and I won’t forget the discomfort soon.

    • Wolfbird says:

      I had the same exact feeling (but sans the melatonin) and it sucks hard. I started taking it and the best thing I can say about melatonin is that even though it didn’t help me sleep, at least it didn’t cause any noticable harm… yet :/

      • speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

        Yeah, i did the same damn thing when I took valerian (to relax me) and No-Doz (to keep me alert) before a big exam in college. Instead I wound up falling apart from deadly sleepiness compounded with shaking anxiety. BAD TRIP DUDES.

    • drburk says:

      1) with melatonin (as most supplements) by the expensive and often European variety. Supplements are more highly regulated in Europe so you won’t find a bunch of other junk like you do with the national or store brands.
      2) with melatonin don’t jump in with both feet. Start with half a pill the first night and work up.

    • Caffinehog says:

      Melatonin makers put WAY too much of the stuff in there. I’ve seen 10mg pills. 100mcg is enough for most people. That’s 100 times the necessary dose!

    • Clumber says:

      For me, melotonin had the desired effect on my sleeping – it helped me fall asleep and if you have ever had insomnia for weeks at a time, you know that you hit a point where if some guy told you that eating a tire would set you to sleep – you’d RUN to eat the nearest tire. HOWEVER, it wouldn’t leave my system for a few days… in other words, I’d be in a foggy sort of purgatory even 2 days after my last dose. Reducing dosage and changing brands a couple times didn’t really help. Additionally, it gave me very disturbing and violently intense dreams that I finally decided were intolerable.

      Nope. Still haven’t found any solution for insomnia that attacks me every so often. The Rx solutions have been tried, and their effects were as bad or worse. Sucks.

  4. CaptCynic says:

    Wow, every one of those sounds like either a disease, an alien species, or an alternative to adamantium.

  5. Frankenstoen says:

    Kava is perfectly safe for most people, provided it is properly prepared from the rootstock and not consumed in massive quantities. The cases in Europe where people were harmed were from pharmaceutical companies who used the upper portion of the plant (in an effort to cut costs) and industrial solvents to extract the active ingredients. The leaves, never used traditionally by natives, contained toxic compounds. Saying that people should never use kava is like saying that people should never use acetaminophen because there was once a bad batch of Tylenol.

  6. dolemite says:

    I see a lot of warnings, but not a lot of alternatives. Personally, I like to take a multivitamin, and fish oil, but I have no clue if they have contaminants, etc. I just get whatever is on sale at CVS usually.

    How about a list of tested/safe vitamins and supplements?

    • tsukiotoshi says:

      I ran my supplements by my doctor to make sure none of the ingredients listed were harmful and he approved them, but that does not really help with the contamination issue, I suppose. Fish oil from a reputable company is probably less sketchy than most other supplements. That one has been recommended to me by no less than four doctors, including my optometrist, and is pretty mainstream these days.

  7. rdhddramaqn says:

    Putting colloidal silver ON a wound is different than ingesting colloidal silver. Silver has long been known for it’s topical antibacterial properties, HOWEVER, that does not mean you should INGEST it!

  8. RickinStHelen says:

    Just remember, unregulated supplements are safe, vaccinations are dangerous, and raw milk is better than pastuerized. Follow that mantra, and you and your children will be fine. Even Jenny McCarthy says so!

  9. catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

    someone recently recommended a “diabetes cure” to me that consists of two supplements. if you read the ‘all natural ingredients’ on each of them… the side effects of those plants include lactation, breast enlargement, diarrhea [the other one causes constipation so it balances out?] hallucinogenic, diuretic, etc.
    plus one of them includes black locust [tree] extract which is a known poison with the following symptoms: “Oropharyngeal irritation, Esophageal irritation, Gastrointestinal tract irritation, Digestive tract bleeding, Digestive tract tissue damage, Vomiting, Diarrhea, Liver toxicity, CNS toxicity, Kidney toxicity, Adrenal system toxicity, Depression, Nausea, Weakness, Abdominal pain, Bloody diarrhea, Weak pulse, Dilated pupils, Pallor, Cold limbs.”

    seriously? i’m always amazed at the crap people will put in their bodies without at least looking up the side effects and ingredients.
    the fact that the FDA doesn’t even bother to shut down a manufacturer who is selling a known poison as a diabetes cure would drive me crazy if i didn’t occasionally take a deep breath and think about natural selection

    • chatterboxwriting says:

      A lot of people will do pretty much anything if someone makes a convincing argument for it. My stepmother-in-law-to-be is a prime example. She’s really into essential oils and herbs and such, which is fine (some herbs do have proven medicinal benefits), but she has the mentality that “it’s natural, so it can’t hurt me.” She also eschews medical care in favor of these alternative therapies. When my bf’s father had back pain in December, she started treating him with geranium oil and liniments for a “pinched nerve” (mind you, she made this diagnosis on her own). In January, he ended up hospitalized for 21 days because it turns out the back pain was a staph infection that had somehow gotten into his spinal canal and was trying to attach itself to the lining of his lungs. Instead of going to the doctor early and getting antibiotics, he ended up having a PICC line inserted for over a month and undergoing an intense surgery that involved removing one of his ribs and removing portions of his cervical vertebrae and then cementing them.

      • catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

        oh yes, the ‘all natural’ argument. i love when people suggest i take echinacea as an all natural immune booster… i have SIX autoimmune diseases. my immune system does not need boosting. i have nightshade plants growing wild in my backyard. they’re all natural too. still toxic. and yes i know carefully controlled prescription nightshade is used to treat certain eye conditions. in microscopic doses.

    • Rectilinear Propagation says:

      …would drive me crazy if i didn’t occasionally take a deep breath and think about natural selection

      Part of the problem though is that they also go after people who have a disease/condition there isn’t a cure for and/or have doctors that won’t listen to them.

      I know a woman who’s having some eye issues right now which keep getting dismissed by her doctor. I know if she hears about a supplement that claims to treat her symptoms she’s going to try it because she’s not getting any help from the eye doctor. (I’ve told her to see a different doctor and I hope she will but I don’t know what her insurance situation is)

      • catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

        i had 5 doctors dismiss my various symptoms as trivial or treat the symptoms. my eye doctor diagnosed my eye dryness as Sjögren’s and wanted to cauterize my tear ducts shut. turns out it was adult onset type I diabetes AND Sjögren’s – the Sjögren’s symptoms are controllable as long as i am treating my diabetes.
        tell your friend to keep trying.

      • johnva says:

        I have an incurable, untreatable neurological condition (genetic disease). Despite numerous studies, nothing has been shown to really work against it (and they’ve studied a number of vitamins, hormones, etc in addition to pharmaceuticals). All that you can do for it is try to maintain as much muscle function and mobility as you can through physical therapy, bracing, etc, but nothing can treat, reverse, or slow the underlying condition right now. I have accepted this, and so I realize that the limits of what doctors can do for me are basically just to monitor the condition and see how it has progressed.

        I’m also on a few discussion groups/lists for this disease. And I think I’m in the distinct minority as someone who insists on scientific evidence before using “supplements” and the like. A large number of people on those lists like to trade various “recipes” for supplements and herbs that they claim can treat the disease (based on very little evidence other than their supposedly “feeling better” after taking them). My guess is that a huge portion of this is the placebo effect, confirmation bias, and the fact that the disease sort of ebbs and flows as far as how bad the symptoms are (so it will naturally “improve” from time to time, and these people then ALWAYS attribute that to the supplements they’re taking). If I even suggest that these things don’t work, or that they might be experiencing the placebo effect, or that supplements are dangerously unregulated, I INSTANTLY get attacked by people calling me a “pharma shill”, a “sucker” for listening to the FDA, or “dogmatic” for believing in the power of science. We even get accused of trying to rob people of hope and being “defeatist” if I or anyone else points out the proven fact that nothing is known to be able to treat the disease.

        So basically, I think you’re right. A lot of people get into this mentality because they’re frustrated that scientific medicine just doesn’t always have easy answers for them and chooses not to suggest something that isn’t likely to work. They’d rather have the feeling that they’re “doing something” rather than feel powerless.

  10. bsh0544 says:

    I think it’d be kinda awesome to turn blue-grey.

  11. Horselady says:

    “The struggle to remain healthy is gradually killing me…….” Ashleigh Brilliant

  12. duckfeet says:

    Oh man, I love lobelia. I use a liquid version topically as a mild and non-addictive muscle relaxer. It helps some with tension headaches and majorly with my night leg twitches. I’d buy cases and hoard them if the FDA restricted it.

    Or grow it. And then sell it at farmer’s markets as DuckFeet’s Secret No Twitch Aid. Wait– I should do that now.

  13. sonneillon says:

    Kava is a mild narcotic. Mmmmm

    • Bakergirl says:

      I treid it as it was marketed, as a ‘mood elevator’ or an aid to PMS. all it did was make it hard to breath and make my chest tight.

    • Emperor Norton I says:

      I remember when Borden came out with a coffee brand called Kava.
      The stuff made me puke!

  14. Promethean Sky says:

    I do take a few supplements, but nothing that hasn’t been through at least a few double-blind university studies. And my cholesterol level has dropped since I started the fish oil. (this is in addition to, not instead of, cholesterol meds)

    • TorontoConsumer says:

      You mention trusting double-blind studies, but you don’t understand controlling variables- you’re taking two treatments for cholesterol and attributing the effects to one (or both, I can’t tell).

      • Shadowman615 says:

        I also take a combination of cholesterol meds & fish oil (omega-3). Both for a high triglycerides. My doctor actually prescribed & recommended the exact combination. But yes, there’s not really any way to tell if it’s one, the other, or both (or small changes in diet) that are helping. Not really any reason to find out either since it has been working — might as well not mess with it. Fish oil is pretty harmless as far as supplements go.

        Actually now it seems to be available as a prescription called Lovaza. Although since one can get the same thing pretty cheaply and easily OTC from the supplements aisle, I’m not sure what the point is, other than perhaps to legitimize it — and get rid of the “Statements not evaluated by the FDA” badge.

  15. mythago says:

    I remember the scare tactics the supplement industry used to keep the FDA off its back – all this crap about how the government at the behest of Big Pharma is coming to take away your herbal tea.

  16. Suisei says:

    I remember a while back i was in a GNC store in a mall and saw a dude grab a bottle of yohimbe, I warned him that the stuff can do damage, but he ignored me and purchased it anyway. I think that stuff is added to certain…questionable pills used to ‘expand ones’ horizons’.

  17. Thyme for an edit button says:

    “Country mallow” sounds like some kind of delicious dessert.

    I’m headed to the drug store for some ice cream and a piece of country mallow!

  18. Stannous Flouride says:

    Lobelia extract, administered one drop per dose, 5 times a day, eliminates the craving for nicotine.
    I quit smoking after an 18 year, two-pack-a-day habit and lost 35 lbs in the process.
    It is, however, a powerful emetic alkaloid and any more than a drop may cause vomiting.

  19. Amnesiac85 says:

    Working at a clinical research center that does phase 2 and phase 3 trials, it’s amazing the different stages an FDA approved medication needs to go through to hit the market (and for good reason). Even if it passes through, it can still be shot down after testing.

    Then, to turn around and see these so called helpful dietary supplements just sitting on the shelf with no recourse brought against them, all the while harming people….it boggles the mind.

  20. Havoc737903 says:

    Say it ain’t so consumerist! How could you stoop so low!?

    I find it hard to take this article seriously.
    This is just a list of substances from the FDA that haven’t obtained their GRAS status for one reason or another.

    Personally, I’m offended that Kava made the list.
    Kava smoothies are delicious, and kava has been used forever as a “health supplement” and I myself can vouch for it’s safety and effectiveness when used for anti anxiety treatment. Plus you can get drunk without getting drunk, and if you make up a brew from the root (not the leaves or stems of the plant, however) it’s a whole lot friendlier to your liver than alcohol.

    The FDA can go regulate somewhere else for all I care, because they sure aren’t “protecting” us from the real danger of prescription medications that are far worse for you than any herb or “supplement.”

    • GamblesAC2 says:

      Agreed, this seems just like the rest of the anti supplement scare articles written by CR ( It’s also worth mentioning that while CR seems to like to slam the supplement industry with criticism they seem to sympathize with Big Pharma and don’t criticize them enough ) i know several people whom uses supplements (my self included) whom have had no side effects.

      • stanfrombrooklyn says:

        What you’re saying is that CR sides with an industry whose products are all regulated and tested by 3rd parties and the government. While it “slams” an industry whose products rarely have outside unbiased testing and can claim whatever benefits it wants. I say thank you CR.

    • speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

      As someone with a certain amount of herbalism training (I was interested, sue me), I am horrified that nine of the substances on that list are even available commercially at all. I certainly would never “prescribe” them. I would stay away from the remaining three, but still keep them available for a few, very limited, uses. I want to stress that better, more effective, safer remedies exist for all of the conditions normally treated for those substances.

  21. mude says:

    For things like Germanium, there are medical records where a causal link can be established between a regular consumption of the supplement over a prolonged period of time and such adverse side effects as renal failure and death. The fact remains though that there have been no long term studies to identify the full list of health effects for any of these supplements.

  22. stanfrombrooklyn says:

    I’ve always found it strange that an entire multi-billion dollar industry can exist and thrive by promising miraculous health benefits that have never been vetted by anyone outside the industry. The supplement industry has some great lobbyists for sure.

    • Evil_Otto would rather pay taxes than make someone else rich says:

      I don’t know about lobbyists. I think the real problem is that people are really really gullible and stupid, and believe whatever they’re told, ESPECIALLY when it’s spun that Big Pharma is just the man trying to keep us down.

    • johnva says:

      People believe what they’re told because a lot of people don’t understand how to weigh the credibility of a source (because they are too ignorant of the facts). So they just go by which “authority” figure frames things in a way that most closely clicks with their preexisting biases (such as the idea that “Big Pharma” or the government are not trustworthy). All the supplement marketers have to do is prey on people’s distrust of major institutions.

      And yes, they have good lobbyists. And also a few Congressmen who genuinely believe in the stuff. I’ve got no problem with some of it being sold, but it needs to be REGULATED a lot more tightly than it is. As it is, the supplement classification has basically become just a loophole via which unregulated pharmaceuticals can be sold, totally undermining the purpose of the FDA. They can sell and claim almost anything as long as they include a “quack Miranda”: a statement saying something along the lines of “these claims have not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to treat or prevent any disease or condition”. Of course, why would people buy their product if they actually listened to that warning?

  23. PSUSkier says:

    I like colloidal silver. Not for personal use mind you, but that nice zombie-fied blue color it turns your skin is just hilarious.

  24. ashmelev says:

    Actually ephedrine alkaloids were banned because of two reasons:
    1) There were few deaths/heart attacks caused by multiple dozes of weight loss supplements consumed at the same time by some fat bastards who sat on a couch in front of a TV eating donuts.instead of exercising.
    2) Bauer, being unable to compete with a cheap Chinese supply of ephedrine, lobbied lawmakers to create a bill banning it as a precursor for methamphetamine. Their own version of the drug that had replaced ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrine in almost all cold medicines sold in US is much more expensive and does not work as good as ephedrine did.

  25. PerpetualStudent says:

    I’m surprised that they still allow supplement manufacturers to hide ingredients or dosage information by labeling it “proprietary”.

    I understand the business argument, but it prevents the consumer from making informed decisions about use.

    I had a coworker get fired because he tested positive for methamphetamine on a random drug test. He appealed and submitted a list of the supplements he was taking – it was traced to a thermogenic. The substance wasn’t listed on the ingredients – but the testing agency was able to confirm it was in there. Guy got his job back but was required to stop taking it.

  26. frak says:

    Based on the FDA’s history with effective product regulation, if it gets concerned about a supplement, it has killed at least 400,000 people and/or the product does not have an effective lobby.

  27. carbonmade says:

    Here’s the thing, unless your doctor has said you are deficient in something, you should not be taking supplements. Too much of any supplement is not good for your body.

  28. MarvinMar says:

    They left of Unobtanium
    I know that mineral killed thousands and almost exterminated an entire planet.

  29. I wumbo. You wumbo. He- she- me... wumbo. Wumbo; Wumboing; We'll have thee wumbo; Wumborama; Wumbology; the study of Wumbo. says:

    Too much of anything can harm you.

  30. Bix says:

    GHB of all things used to be legal and sold over the counter in health food type stores, GNC, etc. After it was banned, a slightly reformulated version showed up, which was also banned. We badly need better supplement regulation.

  31. Colorfultrash says:

    Uh, the FDA approves shit all the time that is horrible for you and has way more side effects then the “dirty dozen” So I think we should take this with a huge grain of salt.

  32. tacitus59 says:

    First, the FDA should be allowed to force manufaturers to put the contents and the amount of ingredient on the supplement. And they should do random checking on product purities. The major problem with supplements – is even the the “good” supplement makers import their supplements directly or indirectly and the quality and purity is truly unknown.

    Some of these supplements (re taking collodial silver internally) are truly dangerous. Some are dangerous only because you have people taking them not practicing due diligence and only taking the word on one source or just overdose themselves … and then they (or someone they loved) whines about it There is a lot of crap info out there as well as crap products and not everyone makes good judgements. But if the FDA get complete control of the supplements and truly treats them like drugs, you will not be able to get your pet supplement.. FDA tried to do that a number of years ago and thats why we have a fed law on the books essentially allowing the current free-wheeling supplement environment.

  33. JulesNoctambule says:

    Aconite?? Sweet sandwich jesus, people think that’s good for them?