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Hidden Dangers of Vitamins, Say Experts

A new investigation raises major red flags about the supplement market.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

An investigation by Consumer Reports confirms what many experts have been warning about for years: So-called "natural" over-the-counter supplements can land you in the emergency room. "So right now the FDA is completely overwhelmed," says Pieter Cohen, MD. "We don't even know how many products are out there. The estimates are that they're greater than 75,000 different dietary supplement products on the market. There is no way the FDA can get a handle on even what's out there, much less which of those are dangerous." Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Yes, You Can Overdose on Vitamins

Two exhausted and desperate surgeons.

Vitamins and minerals can make you sick if you take too much—no matter how "natural" or "organic" the ingredients are. "It doesn't make sense to me to take huge doses of vitamins and minerals unless there's a diagnosed problem, because there is so little evidence that they do good and sometimes a possibility that they might do harm," says Marion Nestle, M.P.H., Ph.D., a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University.


What's Really In That Pill?

woman holding white pills

Some supplements can actually contain prescription drugs—especially sexual enhancement and weight loss supplements, the report reveals. "A number of the spiked sexual enhancement products claim to work within 20 to 45 minutes," says Daniel Fabricant, PhD., director of the FDA's Division of Dietary Supplement Programs. "When we see a product that makes claims above and beyond what a dietary supplement might do—above supporting health—and within a time frame of a few minutes, it tips us off that we might have a spiked product."


Warning Labels Are Mostly Useless


Unless it's an iron supplement, the warning labels on supplements are inconsistent and unreliable (the FDA does not make warning labels a requirement). "Some companies go with an overabundance of caution, and that's certainly their right to do that," says Steve Mister, president and CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a leading industry trade group. "Other companies say, you know what, I'm not going to warn for possible things that I don't believe are a serious concern to my consumers."


Supplements Cannot Protect You From Disease and Illness

older woman taking pill or supplement
Shutterstock / fizkes

Despite what the label says, supplements cannot prevent disease. "In fact, it's illegal for companies to make claims that supplements will treat, diagnose, prevent or cure diseases," says Jeffrey Millstein, MD. "Supplements may interact with other medications you're taking or pose risks if you have certain medical conditions, such as liver disease, or are going to have surgery. Some supplements also haven't been tested in pregnant women, nursing mothers or children, and you may need to take extra precautions."


Buyer, Beware

young woman in white shirt looking at pill and holding glass of water
Shutterstock / fizkes

The investigation also highlighted the danger of purchasing supplements from neighborhood botánicas, as people have no idea what they might be buying. "These markets should not be singled out, but they also should not be exempt from meeting the same standards required by other purveyors of herbal and dietary supplements," says Tieraona Low Dog, M.D.

Ferozan Mast
Ferozan Mast is a science, health and wellness writer with a passion for making science and research-backed information accessible to a general audience. Read more about Ferozan