If you're taking supplements, especially for weight-loss, beware of economic adulterationDo you use dietary supplements? If so, you’re in the majority.

Recent data shows that approximately 75 percent of adults in the US take them. In the world of weight-loss and obesity care, they’re very common! Even healthcare providers often recommend meal replacement shakes and other supportive products, as well as vitamins after bariatric surgery to prevent nutrient deficiencies and other problems like anemia.

The Flip Side to Supplements

And yet, there’s another side to the weight-loss supplement industry. Every year as we approach “New Year Resolution” season, ads ramp up for quick-fix pills and magical cleanses to help you shed unwanted pounds with no more effort than opening a bottle. Many companies pushing these products directly engage in weight bias and discrimination by preying on insecurities and vulnerabilities of those who have genuine health concerns. But some of them are doing something even worse, and possibly very dangerous: economic adulteration.

What’s Economic Adulteration?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines economic adulteration as “the fraudulent, intentional substitution or addition of a substance in a product for the purpose of increasing the apparent value of the product or reducing the cost of its production, i.e., for economic gain.”

Unfortunately, economic adulteration is a common practice that impacts foods, over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription drugs and dietary supplements. It’s not only very dangerous for consumers, but it’s a crime! It can be hard to catch and is sometimes only revealed after someone gets sick or injured from taking an adulterated product.

A Deeper Look at the Problem

An article in JAMA recently highlighted the problem with supplements, pointing out that products for weight-loss, sports performance and sexual enhancement are the most common adulterated products. Over a nine-year period covered in the study, the FDA recorded almost 800 products adulterated with undeclared drugs or other unapproved agents.

If you really look at the data, 40.9 percent of the adulterated products targeted individuals trying to lose weight. The majority contained undeclared and often unapproved pharmaceutical agents. Imagine how dangerous it might be to take an unapproved stimulant, antidepressant or laxative! Given the discrimination that people with obesity often face in healthcare, it’s no surprise that they are commonly targeted by companies looking to prey on those wanting help. As long as companies can make money doing it, they will!

Final Thoughts

Navigating the rocky waters of the supplement industry can be confusing for any consumer. With the internet, products or services that are fraudulent or dangerous can appear legitimate. Even healthcare professionals don’t always know what’s been approved or tested, so they may resort to calling all products unsafe. But – there ARE ways to tell the difference!

In the next part of this blog series, we’ll look at what separates the good from the bad. But for now, use this one rule: if it’s promising something that sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The people selling those products are, at a minimum, engaging in weight bias (which none of us should support) – but could actually be selling products that may cause real physical harm.

About the Author:
Jacqueline Jacques, ND, FTOS, is the Senior Vice President of Medical Affairs for Thorne Research, the Past Chief Science Officer of Bariatric Advantage, and a former National Board Member of the OAC. She is a Naturopathic Physician and Fellow of The Obesity Society with more than two decades of experience in medical nutrition and the dietary supplement industry.