Half of the US population regularly takes dietary supplements, but ensuring they are safe has proven difficult since the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) became law. (Lieberman, H., Austin, K., & Farina, E., 2018) Surveys among the armed forces show that dietary supplement intake is higher within this population ranging anywhere between 60 and 70 percent of service members taking at least one dietary supplement daily. (Knapik, J. et al, 2018) While many dietary supplements on the market today are much safer for individuals to consume, some dietary supplements marketed for weight loss, body-building, or performance enhancement contain dangerous substances and are possibly unsafe. (Kao, T. et al, 2021) Service members are more likely to use strength and bodybuilding supplements such as protein or amino acids, creatine, and various combination products marketed as physical performance enhancers. (Knapik, J. et al, 2018)As a member of the armed forces myself, I understand the physical demand that is placed on the individual. It is important to each of us to keep ourselves as healthy as possible, but it can also be difficult to keep up with these physical demands. I know many service members that take dietary supplements, myself included, just to help them stay motivated as well as reach peak fitness. However, we need to make sure we are keeping safe when consuming dietary supplements. With this information in mind, let’s talk in more detail about how we can do that!
Dietary Supplement Health and Safety Act of 1994
The purpose of the Dietary Supplement Health and Safety Act is as it states in the name: to help provide safe dietary supplements for consumers. This Act included a provision titled New Dietary Ingredients. This provision was put in place for the purpose of new ingredients introduced into the market after 1994. For these new ingredients, manufacturers were expected to provide the FDA with a 75-day advance notice containing safety data establishing that the ingredient “will reasonably be expected to be safe.” (Cohen, P., & Bass, S., 2019) “Instead, a number of loopholes, vague language in the law, and lack of industry compliance have led to the majority of new ingredients being introduced without any safety evaluation by the FDA.” (Cohen, P., & Bass, S., 2019) This is why it has proven difficult to know if dietary supplements are safe for consumption.
This leaves many of us with growing safety concerns. An example of this is illustrated by the case of 1,3-dimethylamylamine (DMAA), a pharmaceutical stimulant, which was introduced into hundreds of workout and weight-loss products without being vetted by the FDA. Regular users of DMAA are over two times more likely to report tachycardia, tremors, and dizziness, and over three times more likely to report numbness/tingling than non-users. (Lieberman, H., Austin, K., & Farina, E., 2018) “By 2011, experts at the Department of Defense (DOD) had grown concerned that DMAA might increase troops’ risk of hemorrhagic stroke and sudden death. The DOD took the unusual step of prohibiting the sale of the stimulant on military bases and, under pressure, the FDA banned DMAA nationwide.” (Cohen, P., & Bass, S., 2019) (Here is a link to the article by Cohen and Bass: Injecting Safety into Supplements — Modernizing the Dietary Supplement Law: I recommend reading this article for a little more information on why DSHEA needs updating!)
How Can We Keep Ourselves Safe?
Fortunately, there are many resources out there that can help service members ensure supplement safety. The one I will primarily discuss today is called Operation Supplement Safety (OPSS)
(Website: https://www.opss.org/)OPSS website is an excellent resource for tips, a list of banned substances in the armed forces, and an A-Z list of supplement ingredients. This is the most in-depth resource that the DoD has to offer for service members and would be a place I recommend checking the dietary supplement you are considering using. The website is very user friendly and goes into detail about specific ingredients in dietary supplements; harmful and helpful. OPSS keeps up to date with FDA alerts about dietary supplement ingredients and also dietary supplements that have been found to cause adverse side-effects. There is a whole section near the bottom of the page that lists what specific dietary supplements have been pulled by the FDA for not listing ingredients or having ingredients that have side-effects.
There are general education articles available as well such as “Whey protein: the basics” and “Nutrition and dietary supplements for immunity”. I would recommend reading some of these for basic understanding of specific dietary supplements. Finally, there is an ask an expert tab that allows you to get a live answer from . . .well, an expert. This may take some time to get a response though! If you need immediate results, I recommend calling your healthcare provider. Outside of the military, there are other recommendations as well. For example, the FDA recommends (What You Need to Know about Dietary Supplements):
- When searching for supplements on the internet, use noncommercial sites (e.g. NIH, FDA, USDA) rather than depending on information from sellers.
- If claims sound too good to be true, they probably are.
- Be mindful of product claims such as “works better than [a prescription drug],” “totally safe,” or has “no side effects.”
- Be aware that the term natural doesn’t always mean safe.
- Ask your healthcare provider if the supplement you’re considering would be safe and beneficial for you.
- Use caution and look for independent quality assessment seals and third-party verification for added safety.