The distinction between a "supplement" and a "drug" is not always clear to the consumer. The dietary supplement industry's roots intertwine with the coattails of a scientific giant: Linus Pauling. He was two-time Nobel laureate; as a scientist, he stands alongside Einstein, Salk, and Curie as one of the greatest minds of the 20th century.However, not all of Pauling's theories were met with accolades. In the late 1960s, he postulated that disease states could be altered by the concentration of different substances within the body. His self-named field of 'orthomolecular medicine' emphasized vitamin C, a substance that Pauling asserted could stave off maladies ranging from the common cold to cancer. He raged against Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs)—the suggested amounts of nutrients that a person should consume daily—and his books on the topic were New York Times best-sellers. The movement gathered steam.
"In the quest for more energy, less weight, and more hair, people tend to look for nonconventional therapies because conventional medicine doesn't address those problems."
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Meanwhile, megavitamin-heads found an advocate in Congress. In 1976, Senator William Proxmire introduced the Vitamin-Mineral Amendment. It sought to eradicate upper limits on RDAs for vitamins and minerals; however, this created a dangerous exemption: The FDA could no longer regulate these supplements as drugs by virtue of their potency. Although the American Medical Association opposed Proxmire, Congress passed the amendment by a resounding majority.
That very phrase was printed on the bottle of Clenbutrx. T2, and all the weight loss products on the market that contained it, fell under the same regulatory guidelines as a multivitamin. "Given the biological significance of thyroid hormones, the presence of thyroid hormones and their metabolites in products marketed as dietary supplements presents a potential safety concern," Lyndsay Meyer, spokeswoman for the FDA, says. "Many products that are marketed as dietary supplements contain active ingredients that have strong biological effects, and their safety is not always assured in all users.""It's a highly unregulated industry left to the manufacturer and the seller to self-police and make appropriate claims," says Diane Krieger, an endocrinologist and associate professor of medicine at the Florida International University Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine. For fifteen years, Krieger researched dietary supplements with rigorous study designs, employing methods akin to those used for pharmaceuticals. In her experience, public perceptions of safety frequently drove a supplement's popularity. "Oftentimes someone says they don't want to take prescription medicine, but they'll easily take an unregulated substance that is misrepresented with bad labeling." It's no surprise to Krieger that an active thyroid hormone like T2 is readily available on the market: "In the quest for more energy, less weight, and more hair, people tend to look for nonconventional therapies because conventional medicine doesn't address those problems. Most of the time these symptoms are lifestyle-related: lack of exercise, poor diet, bad sleep patterns, too much stress," she says. "Today, people can go to Whole Foods and buy a product for 'thyroid support' that could contain ground up animal thyroids. That sometimes will make them feel a little better, but it's not really addressing the problem." Of the four companies I approached about their use of T2 in weight loss products, only one responded: They had discontinued this fat burner. Shortly after this exchange, any mention of T2 was removed from their website.Four years have passed since my classmate showed me Clenbutrx. From the looks of it, this product is also off the market. I wear a longer white coat now; I've taken an oath. And today, I'm in clinic, holding a shopping bag full of a patient's medications. The sea of burnt orange prescription bottles is interrupted by one in white. Green Coffee Bean Extract, which reportedly "boosts weight loss naturally."I review the fine print: "This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease."Alexander Daoud is a physician training in New York.Read This Next: How Bad is it to Binge on Gummy Vitamins?
"Someone says they don't want to take prescription medicine, but they'll easily take an unregulated substance that is misrepresented with bad labeling."