Chemistry and Life

Medicinal chemistry. Pharmacology. Toxicology. Environmental sciences.

If your dietary supplement is advertised to work as well as a pharmaceutical, it may be adulterated with one

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Recent news is that the US Department of Justice has taken action against some major manufacturers of dietary supplements – companies whose products are sold in retail outlets such as GNC and Vitamin Shoppe.  They are alleged to have intentionally adulterated their products with synthetic pharmaceutical drugs.

It has long been known that the less reputable supplement manufactures, the kind that sells things like “herbal viagra” over the internet, spike their products with pharmaceutical ingredients to make them effective.  They know, for example, that in terms of effectiveness, nothing natural can compete with Viagra.  So they add sildenafil (the active ingredient in Viagra), tadalafil (Cialis), or vardenafil (Levitra) to their products to make them actually work as well as their customers expect.  This, of course, can be dangerous for those purchasing these products because they have no idea what they will be consuming.  They are being dosed with an unknown amount of a potent drug that can cause serious side effects even when taken under the controlled conditions of a prescription medication.  The recent news about basketball star Lamar Odom’s near-fatal overdose on “herbal viagra” pills highlights this danger.

Even worse, in an attempt to outwit authorities that may be testing their products for those specific adulterants, supplement manufacturers are known to turn to untested, unapproved drugs instead.  There are many drug candidates with the same mechanism of action as Viagra (a class of drugs known as PDE5 inhibitors) that failed clinical trials or were dropped from development for various reasons (maybe toxicity, unacceptable side effects, etc) or never even advanced into clinical trials.  Examples include acetildenafil, aildenafil, and thiosildenafil.  Unscrupulous supplement manufacturers have been caught putting these in their products too.  A criminally dangerous behavior, indeed.

But now with the recent news from the DOJ, it seems that even some big names in the supplement industry are doing the same thing.  It is apparent that they believe what their critics have been saying all along: all-natural herbal ingredients just aren’t effective in the same way as FDA approved pharmaceutical drugs that have succeeded through scientifically vigorous clinical trials.  So to get their supplements to work as well as those pharmaceuticals, they have resorted to adding them to their own products.  Although the headliner is USP Labs, whose executives have been arrested and are facing criminal charges, there are over 100 manufacturers being targeted.  The problem appears to be widespread.

So, yes, if your dietary supplement is advertised to work as well as a pharmaceutical, it just may be adulterated with one.

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