The $37 Billion Supplement Industry Is Barely Regulated — And It's Allowing Dangerous Products To Slip Through The Cracks

  • The $37 billion supplement industry is largely unregulated
  • Some supplements (a category that includes vitamins and herbs) can be dangerous and have been linked with ER visits and death
  • The FDA is currently recalling supplements found to be contaminated with banned drugs and bacteria
  • New supplement companies like Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop continue to advertise their products as healthy despite potential side effects, and some say they target vulnerable consumers

When Pouya Jamshidi, a resident at Weill Cornell Medical College, delivered his first baby, the doctor on call told him to take the newborn away from its mother.

The baby, a healthy girl with mocha-pink skin and a powerful set of lungs, was being quarantined.

In the middle of the pregnancy, her mother had come down with tuberculosis. She'd contracted the contagious lung infection in her teens, and the illness came back despite preventative antibiotics and regular screenings. The cause: a popular herbal supplement called St. John's wort.

"The trouble is most people don't consider it a medication because you don't need a prescription for it, and so she didn't tell us," Jamshidi told Business Insider.

St. John's wort is one of the most popular herbal supplements sold in the United States. But in 2000, the National Institutes of Health published a study showing that St. John's wort could severely curb the effectiveness of several important pharmaceutical drugs — including antibiotics, birth control, and antiretrovirals for infections like HIV — by speeding up their breakdown in the body.

"It basically overmetabolized the antibiotics so they weren't in her system in the correct dose," Jamshidi said.

The findings on St. John's wort prompted the US Food and Drug Administration to warn doctors about the herbal remedy. But that did little to stem public sale or consumption of it. Over the past two decades, US poison-control centers have gotten about 275,000 reports — roughly one every 24 minutes — of people who reacted badly to supplements; a third of them were about herbal remedies like St. John's wort.

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