The main reason why is this: in the 1990s wealthy large companies paid for expensive PR campaigns that appealed to the public's paranoia, convincing many that the government was trying to take away their wonderful supplements. At the same time, the industry paid large amounts into the campaign coffers of "anti-regulation" senators and in return they got the law they wanted that prohibits the government from regulating supplements. (Details about how the industry destroyed the FDA's ability to regulate supplements can be found in this Harvard Law School publication HERE.)
As things stand now, manufacturers can sell pretty much anything they want to as long as they don't make health claims on the label and as long as their supplements don't cause enough death or disability to trigger an investigation.
What this means for you the consumer is this: supplement manufacturers can promote their wares as medicines as heavily as they want to, as long as they do not put the claim on the actual bottle they sell. They can put it on a web site. They can pay a PR person to plant articles in health magazines, and they can send brochures to self-appointed alternative medicine "practitioners." And, believe me, they do.
Supplement manufacturers often sell their extremely expensive products with the argument that the natural supplement is a better choice than a pharmaceutical drug. For example, they may tell you that soy isoflavones are better than pharmaceutical estrogen at menopause. Or that you can control your blood pressure by taking magnesium rather than blood pressure medication. As long as they don't put this false claim on the label, the FDA cannot step in. It's worthy of note that if a health claim is supported, it CAN be put on the label. But if that is the case the FDA would then be able to treat the supplement as a drug and test it to see if the bottle contains what it says it does.
In most cases, it doesn't. Which is why you will never see any health claim on supplement labels.
Every time anyone takes bottles of supplements to the lab they find that these bottles do NOT contain what they say they do. They may not contain any of the expensive herb or chemical you are paying for or they may contain an amount of that substance that is quite different from what they list on the label.
Sometimes the bottle you just paid $23.95 for contains little beyond some calcium carbonate pills. But though you are frequently not getting what you paid for, at other times the pills you buy may contain too much. And since some supplements are toxic in large doses this is a concern. Even within a single bottle, given the lax manufacturing practices in this unregulated industry, pill to pill the ingredients may vary.
And the problems with what's in that bottle go beyond fluctuating doses. The pills you buy may also contain poisons. These may occur in the form of heavy metals, industrial contaminants (solvents etc.), and the naturally occurring toxins that come from fungal or bacterial contamination.
A recent lab analysis of what was in the bottles of 12 brands of Red Yeast Rice, a supplement marketed for controlling cholesterol, makes it crystal clear why if you do find yourself needing medicinal treatment, you should avoid the use of unregulated supplements.
The study can be found here: Marked Variability of Monacolin Levels in Commercial Red Yeast Rice Products Ram Y. Gordon et al. Archives of Internal Medicine, 2010; 170 (19): 1722 DOI: 10.1001/archinternmed.2010.382
You can read a more detailed report about this study's findings here: Science Daily: Active ingredient levels vary among red yeast rice supplements.
THIS "NATURAL" STATIN REPLACEMENT CONTAINS ACTUAL STATINS
People take Red Yeast Rice to lower cholesterol instead of statins, rightly fearing the problems that statins can cause. What the supplement industry does not make clear is that the reason Red Yeast Rice may lower cholesterol is that it contains a chemical, monacolin K, which is chemically identical to the chemical marketed as the pharmaceutical drug lovastatin.
THE AMOUNT OF STATIN IN A RED YEAST RICE PILL CAN RANGE FROM ALMOST NONE TO WAY TOO MUCH
The main difference between statin in the red yeast rice pill you buy and pharmaceutical lovastatin is that the amount of lovastatin you get in the "natural" supplement is completely unknown. In the study cited above, researchers found that the concentration of lovastatin in the 12 different branded bottles varied from 0.10 to 10.09 mg per capsule. That's a significant range!
Since the size of the dose of statin you take has a lot to do with both its effectiveness and with whether it will cause the severe side effects that statins cause (including brain damage leading to mild, irreversible dementia and muscle wasting) it is extremely unwise to take your statin in a form where you have no idea how much you are getting. This study clearly shows that when you buy your statin as a "natural supplement" you may be getting almost none, some, or too much. Why play Russian Roulette with your meds?
THE NATURAL SUPPLEMENT CONTAINS ADDITIONAL TOXIC CONTAMINANTS ESPECIALLY DANGEROUS FOR PEOPLE WITH DIABETES
But that's not the only problem with Red Yeast Rice. The other problem is that because it is an unregulated "natural" product which is created by growing funguses on rice, it often contains other funguses--some of which produce poisons.
In the case of Red Yeast Rice the fungus-produced toxin that produced by the funguses that grow alongside of those that produce the statin is called citrinin. It is a toxin known to destroy the kidneys in animals.
The study cited above found "elevated levels" of citrinin in four out of twelve brands of Red Yeast Rice products it evaluated. (The phrasing suggests the researchers also may have found lower levels in other bottles.) Sadly, the researchers did not reveal to the public which brands contained this toxin. My guess is that they did this out of a fear of lawsuits brought by the companies who earn billions each year from selling you this toxic crap.
I would have to say that one of the most common questions I get in my email from readers of this blog and the Blood Sugar 101 web site is "What supplements do you recommend I take." Many of my correspondents will accompany this question with a long list of supplements they are already taking.
Sadly, many of them are taking red yeast rice in the erroneous belief that it is safer and healthier than the statins that doctors push on people with diabetes.
Since so many people with diabetes already have early kidney damage at the time they receive their diabetes diagnosis, this is disturbing news. The last thing a person with diabetes needs is to be taking a supplement that contains a chemical known to poison the kidneys.
THE SUPPLEMENT INDUSTRY ENSURES THAT THEIR TOXIC PRODUCTS WILL STAY ON THE SHELF
As things stand now, the FDA can act against a supplement only after doctors report damage to patients that is linked to their taking a specific supplement. But because doctors expect people with diabetes to develop kidney failure and may not even know their patients are taking these alternative medicine forms of statins, it is very unlikely that the damage that kidney-toxic red yeast rice may be wreaking will ever be noticed.
There are real problems with statins, but at least when you take a statin you bought at the pharmacy you can be sure that the capsule contains the dose you were told it did and that it is not contaminated with poisons.
The same is true of every other supplement you may buy. And given the amounts of money that corporations who profit from selling you dangerous crap are paying into the campaigns of candidates howling for more "deregulation" you can be sure it isn't going to change any time soon.
If you really want to protect your health, avoid all supplements. You have no way of knowing what is in any of them. Some companies claim that their supplements have been tested for purity. However, when I investigated these claims in the past, I learned that all this means is that one batch was taken to the lab, once. There is no assurance that what you buy will match the lab assay provided (and the small print that accompanies these claims of lab-proven purity is full of legal weasel-wording.)
Other potentially damaging supplements include kelp, all of which is contaminated with arsenic. When I contacted supplement companies about this I was told that finding arsenic in natural kelp it was "normal." None denied the claim that their products contained arsenic. Arsenic exposure has been implicated as a cause of diabetes. (Details HERE).
Fish oil may contain mercury. Vitamin D capsules appear to contain amounts of Vitamin D that do not correspond to the label Details HERE.
The supplement industry always responds to these kinds of reports by appealing to anti-government paranoia. "This is a plot by the FDA to take away your freedom" is the usual response.
Personally I would like to take away the freedom of a cynical multi-billion dollar industry to sell you whatever it feels like putting in a pill, slapping a label on the bottle that lies about its contents, and to ignore the fact it is charging you a fortune for toxins that can shorten your life and make what is left of it miserable.