You can put a leash on a tiger and call it a dog, but that doesn’t make it a dog. The same is true with labeling in the world of dietary supplements. So, how is a consumer to know what products are both safe and legal — and which ones aren’t?

In addition to many safe, beneficial dietary supplements on store shelves, innocent purchasers can end up with some products that contain illegal substances, some of which may be identified right on the label and some that are fraudulently marketed as “dietary supplements.”

Illegal ingredients have no place in health and wellness regimens, and we are united in our goal to clean up the market.

In a 2019 survey among military service members, 74% reported using at least one dietary supplement per week. Among those, multivitamins/multiminerals were the most commonly used (45%), followed by combination products (44%). It is likely the use of dietary supplements by service members and civilians is even greater today.

Regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, dietary supplements are recognized as a class of goods intended to supplement the diet; they cannot be represented as conventional food or the sole item of a diet or meal; and they can come in a variety of forms, such as pills, powders, capsules, softgels, gummies or liquids.

Conscientious manufacturers rigorously follow the law. However, there’s a “dark side” to the ever-growing industry, with some companies wanting to pass off illegal products as “dietary supplements.”

These include anabolic steroids targeting bodybuilders; analogues of prescription drugs, like Viagra, that are sold as “all natural” sexual enhancements; and substances that have never been approved for any medicinal use in the U.S., such as those bearing names like andarine (and other Selective Androgen Receptor Modulators, or SARMs), galantamine, tianeptine and DMAA (1,3 dimethylamylamine).

Tianeptine, which even goes by the nickname “gas station heroin,” can lead to serious side effects, including death. Yet it has been found on dietary supplement labels.

Military personnel and athletes can be misled by claims that these products, some of which are even marketed specifically to troops, are supplements. Meanwhile, these demographics may discover firsthand why these ingredients are considered unsafe.

To safeguard against nefarious practices, here are some steps to identify and avoid illegal products:

  • The FDA publishes an online directory of ingredients against which the agency has already taken action. Be sure to read why an ingredient is listed there. If it’s subject to a warning letter for safety reasons, or it has been determined not to be a legal ingredient, it’s best to avoid any products that contain it.
  • For the military community, Operation Supplement Safety is an evidence-based program available to educate troops on this topic. There is also Department of Defense Instruction 6130.06: Use of Dietary Supplements in the DOD. These tools can help service members identify and avoid suspect ingredients.
  • Look for supplements that have been certified by well-established third-party programs and carry approval seals by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF), Informed Choice/Sport, Banned Substances Control Group (BSCG) or the United States Pharmacopeia (USP).
  • Other useful ingredient information can be found via Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets published by The National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS). This resource will help determine, when purchasing a dietary supplement, what the intended effects are and whether there are any side effects.
  • Talk to a trusted healthcare practitioner about products. A doctor, dietitian or pharmacist can help identify dietary supplements to meet specific health goals. That person from the gym touting a “magic pill” without any medical or nutrition credentials is probably not keeping your health in mind.

The best advice, meanwhile, is to buy supplements only from reputable vendors — whether actual stores or online websites. Would you buy a watch from a guy in an alley or a designer purse from a sidewalk display? Would you have dental surgery or a broken bone reset by someone operating out of a garage?

We can’t stress this enough. Stop buying health products at gas stations, truck stops and “head shops.” If you wouldn’t buy other health care products from that vendor, why would you trust them with your dietary supplements?

Purchasing from stores or websites advertising products as “barely legal,” “not available anywhere else,” “better than prescription drugs” or “research chemicals” is playing with fire.

Remember, you are responsible for what you put in your body. And if the animal at the end of the leash has stripes and growls like a tiger, it’s probably not a dog.

Andrea T. Lindsey is the director of Operation Supplement Safety and a senior nutrition scientist with the Consortium for Health and Military Performance (CHAMP), Department of Military and Emergency Medicine, F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine, Uniformed Services University; and contractor at Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine, Inc.

Steve Mister is the president and CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, the leading trade association representing dietary supplement manufacturers.

Disclaimer: Opinions and assertions expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Uniformed Services University or DOD. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or policies of the HJF. The authors have no relevant financial interests, activities, relationships, and/or affiliations to disclose. Mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations does not imply DOD or government endorsement.

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