Clueless devotees of supplements don’t know what’s in them or who makes them

money in supplements
Alternative health is nothing more than a giant scam to separate the scientifically illiterate from their money. The best and simplest example of this phenomenon is the use of herbs and supplements.

Devotees of alternative health like to pretend that herbs and supplements are better because they are “natural,” because they are pure, and because they are not produced by Big Pharma. Nothing could be further from the truth.

First, “natural” is hardly synonymous with beneficial or even harmless. Earthquake, hurricanes and lightening strikes are all “natural” and quite harmful. More to the point, some of the most toxic substances known to man, like the paralytic poisons tetradotoxin and curare, are natural animal and plant products. Anyone who wonders whether “natural” equals beneficial need only contemplate tobacco, opium and cocaine.

Second, even if the active ingredient of an herb or supplement is harmless, it is mixed with contaminants in its natural state. As MSNBC explains:

Lead in ginkgo pills. Arsenic in herbals. Bugs in a baby’s colic and teething syrup. Toxic metals and parasites are part of nature, and all of these have been found in “natural” products and dietary supplements in recent years.

The risks are not simply theoretical:

Millions of Americans take vitamin, herbal or other dietary supplements. Annual sales exceed $23 billion, and more than 40,000 products are on the market. Tens of thousands of supplement-related health problems are handled by U.S. poison control centers each year, according to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2002.

Until last year, supplement makers were not required to report problems to the FDA, and even now they must report only serious ones. The agency estimates that more than 50,000 safety problems a year are related to supplement use.

Because of vigorous lobbying efforts by supplement manufacturers, herbs and supplements are exempted from the rules that apply to medication. Therefore, there is no way for a consumer to be sure that a given herb or supplement contains any active ingredient, or contains too much or too little of the active ingredient. There is no testing to be sure that harmful contaminants are not present. Manufacturers simply grind up leaves and sell them to gullible people, and neither the manufacturers nor the consumers have any idea what’s in them.

Third, and most ironic, the herb and supplement industry is a financial bonanza for … Big Pharma. Sure, the labels on the products are decorated with butterflies and rainbows, but the producers are none other than Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline and Wyeth.

Little herbal stores are only “what the consumer sees when they’re shopping,” while the large companies that supply them are mostly invisible, Silverglade said.

The industry’s little-guy, granola image has been a great marketing asset, allowing it to tap into Americans’ frustration with big medicine, big prices and big risks. Supplement makers are dwarfed by leading pharmaceutical firms, whose drugs command sales in the tens of billions of dollars. Yet the reality is that natural remedy makers constitute a sizable business that doesn’t have to play by the same rules as companies that make prescription or over-the-counter medicines.

In the final analysis, herbs and supplements represent the trifecta of the gullibility of lay people. The active ingredients themselves don’t actually work, the herbs and supplements often don’t contain the active ingredient or contain poisons, and the consumer is paying Big Pharma for the privilege of being scammed.

Herbs and supplements, like all of alternative health, depend on scientific illiteracy. The executives of Big Pharma are laughing all the way to the bank. Not only do they profit from legitimate pharmaceuticals, all of which require major financial investments to develop and assure safety and quality, but they are raking in money from herbs and supplements, without any research, without any quality control, and without any evidence that they work.

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