The Scary Side of Supplements

Earlier this year, the New York state attorney general ordered Target, GNC, Walmart, and Walgreens to remove some dietary supplements from local shelves after DNA testing revealed they contained little more than houseplants and filler ingredients. That’s alarming news, especially if you’re one of the 50 percent of Americans who take some form of supplement daily in hopes of enhancing the benefits of your daily diet, addressing a specific condition, or guarding against ill health.

Supplements should contain vitamins, minerals, herbs, or other naturally derived substances, dispensed in pill, liquid, or other form that’s easy to take internally in effective doses. (You’d spend all your free time harvesting and eating enough mackerel, for instance, to get the amount of fish oil in one capsule). While supplements have historically been touted by alternative practitioners, Western doctors increasingly recommend them, from magnesium for headaches and omega-3s for cardiovascular support to probiotics for digestion and glucosamine for joint pain.

A crucial distinction is that, unlike prescription drugs, supplements aren’t required to go through clinical trials, and for many substances the science is limited if it exists at all.

But some recent studies, such as those that suggest fish oil lowers risk of heart disease and promotes mental health, and that vitamin D benefits bones and muscles as well as the endocrine and nervous systems, have fueled demand.

Manufacturers have cashed in on that market—yet a lack of regulation makes the industry a sort of Wild West. Supplements exist in regulatory limbo: The products are not subject to the same FDA standards as foods, prescription drugs, or over-the-counter medicines. As long as they don’t raise major red flags or make health claims without a disclaimer, companies can theoretically get those capsules into your grocery cart with little or no research or testing (which is conducted essentially on the honor system).

For those who opt to take supplements, reputable manufacturers that offer independent vetting of their products do exist, though, and are more likely to be found at natural-food stores than the big-box stores. Jenny DeRoo, the wellness-purchasing manager at Lakewinds Natural Foods (with stores in Richfield, Chanhassen, and Minnetonka), explains that her store requires third-party product testing and that its vendors regularly test raw ingredients as well as the final product to verify both potency and what’s in the actual bottle.

St. Paul’s Mississippi Market similarly seeks out third-party-tested vendors (and prioritizes organic, non-GMO-certified, local, fair-trade, hormone-free lines). Both co-ops have exhaustively strict policies that bar potentially harmful chemicals in everything they sell—from food to supplements to household products—and they often even visit manufacturing facilities (Lakewinds wellness managers recently traveled to the Aura Cacia essential-oils facility in Iowa, for example).

Natural-food stores prioritize the service of helping customers navigate the confusing array of supplements. “Wellness is easily our most customer-service-intensive department,” says Lauren Bartel, a manager at Mississippi Market, who estimates that a third of her co-op’s wellness staff has a background in a health-related field such as nursing, homeopathy, herbalism, massage, or integrative medicine.

Co-ops tend to have lower employee turnover and a primary emphasis on health and healing, which translates to a more approachable environment for customers than at large chains. While employees can’t and won’t diagnose or prescribe (obviously the province of a primary physician), they are trained to offer information about products and answer customers’ questions—and are a lot more likely to know their bee pollen from their flaxseed oil than the most well-meaning-but-harried shelf-stocker at Walgreens or Target.