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12 Dangerous Dietary Supplements Identified By 'Consumer Reports'

Apr 7, 2004 | USA TODAY

If they're natural, they must be safe, right? Not so, say researchers at Consumer Reports magazine.

In a report in the May issue, the consumer publication found a dozen herbal supplements some banned in Asia, Europe and Canada but widely available in the USA that may cause cancer, kidney or liver damage and even death.

They include:

• Aristolochia, linked to kidney failure and cancer.

• Yohimbe, linked to heart and respiratory problems.

• Bitter orange, similar to ephedra, the banned weight-loss supplement believed responsible for 155 deaths nationwide.

The researchers also cited chaparral, comfrey, germander, kava and scullcap, all of which are known or likely causes of liver failure; lobella because of its impact on the heart; and pennyroyal oil because of possible liver, kidney and nerve damage.

Two of these supplements have already been acted on by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Organ/glandular extracts are affected by FDA restrictions on the use of bovine materials in supplements because of the risk of mad cow disease.

And in March, then-FDA commissioner Mark McClellan warned companies to stop selling the bodybuilding supplement androstenedione (andro).

"A lot of people believe that herbal supplements are safe because they've been used for years in traditional medicine," says senior editor Nancy Metcalf. But "when they went looking for problems in China, they found plenty of them."

The findings highlight the lack of oversight. A 1994 law, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, has been seen as tying the hands of regulators because it requires the FDA to allow the sale of any supplement it cannot prove is unsafe.

But a recent report by the National Institutes of Medicine says flat out that the FDA doesn't need direct evidence of human harm to stop sales of dangerous supplements. It's enough to establish the danger using animal or test-tube studies, or even with reports of problems from similar products.

Manufacturers should be required to report side effects and include a phone number on packaging for consumers who want to do so, the panel said.

Meanwhile, the FDA has sent warning letters to 16 dietary-supplement distributors found to be making false and misleading claims on the Internet for weight-loss products. Many claim to block starch, carbohydrates and fat calories, creating weight loss without any lifestyle changes.

Not all supplements are snake oil, Consumer Reports says. It identified three that show possible benefits and low risks, including saw palmetto for benign enlarged prostate, glucosamine and chondroitin for arthritis, and fish oil capsules for heart health.

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