A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

SDX Awards: Magazine public service, Consumer Reports

By Quill

Millions of consumers equate “all natural” with safe, blind to the fact that a nutritional supplement’s safety claims do not have to be scientifically supported and that the government does not require warning labels of potential dangers.

A Consumer Reports investigation into the multibillion-dollar nutritional supplements business found that highly dangerous supplements can be easily and legally sold in mainstream U.S. stores and on the Internet. The work of reporters Nancy Metcalf and Jamie Kopf spawned “Dangerous Supplements: Still at Large.”

Many makers market their supplements as “natural,” exploiting assumptions that such products can’t harm you. That’s a dangerous assumption, said Lois Swirsky Gold, Ph.D., director of the Carcinogenic Potency Project at the University of California-Berkeley, and an expert on chemical carcinogens. “Natural is hemlock, natural is arsenic, natural is poisonous mushrooms,” she said.

“This story was a continuation of a long-standing beat aimed at protecting the public from mislabeled and dangerous supplements,” said editor-in-chief Margot Slade.

Since 1995, Consumer Reports has reported the risks of various nutritional supplements, including ephedra and bitter orange, both banned by the FDA.

For “Dangerous Supplements,” the team spent two months investigating the worse offenders in supplement market and the FDA’s regulation of supplements. Its research linked aristolochia with kidney failure and cancer, sexual stimulant yohimbe with heart and respiratory problems, and several others with liver failure.

“The more information we can provide, the more we’re empowering consumers to protect themselves in a not-always-safe marketplace,” said Kopf, who shopped for more than $1,500 worth of supplements online.

The articles also profiled consumers, who had experienced negative side effects.

After taking Chinese herbs containing aristolochia for more than two years, (Donna Andrade-Wheaton) suffered severe kidney damage; her kidney tissues were found to contain aristolochic acid. In late 2002, at age 39, she underwent a kidney transplant. Andrade-Wheaton is suing both the acupuncturist who gave her the herbs and several companies that manufactured them. The acupuncturist declined to discuss the case on the record, and the manufacturer did not return our phone calls.

Upon publication, the magazine received letters of gratitude from readers and gained immediate attention from lawmakers.

“The impact of the Consumer Reports article was swift and powerful,” said Slade. “Senator Dick Durbin held the story up on C-SPAN to support increased government regulation of the supplement industry.”