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Cover All the Bases When Shopping for Dietary Supplements: A High-Profile Cautionary Tale

The Green Monster is the nickname for the 37-foot left field wall in Boston’s Fenway Park, a towering barrier that stands the highest in all Major League Baseball parks. Hitting a home run over the Green Monster is a feat accomplished only by ballplayers who possess an extreme amount of power. During the 1990s, the Green Monster met its match again and again, as increasing numbers of brawny players shattered formerly unbreakable home run records. Muscle mass became more synonymous with baseball than stirrups, chewing tobacco, and old-timey moustaches.

But suspicion grew as the crack of the bat, and the crowd, got louder; independent investigations revealed that a number of MLB players tested positive for anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. David Ortiz, the hulking designated hitter from the Boston Red Sox, was one such player. Recently, Ortiz wrote an editorial on the website The Players' Tribune, in which he attempted to explain what had happened:

I’m buying this [over-the-counter supplement] stuff in line next to doctors and lawyers. Now all of a sudden MLB comes out and says there’s some ingredient in GNC pills that have a form of steroid in them. I don’t know anything about it. If you think I’m full of it, go to your kitchen cabinet right now and read the back of a supplement bottle and honestly tell me you know what all of that stuff is. I’m not driving across the border to Mexico buying some shady pills from a drug dealer. I’m in a strip mall across from the Dunkin’ Donuts, bro.

Although Ortiz apparently believed that shopping in the company of highly educated individuals guaranteed the safety and legality of what he was about to ingest, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Under the terms of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, dietary supplement manufacturers essentially operate on the “honor code” — indeed, the vast majority of dietary supplements hit stores without any government pre-market testing or approval.

So has anything changed since the 1990s? Sadly, very little. Just this month, GNC agreed to DNA test its store-brand herbal supplements, to ensure they are not contaminated with unlisted (and potentially hazardous) ingredients. GNC’s new policy was in response to accusations made by the New York State attorney general’s office that GNC, along with three other major retailers, had been selling herbal supplements that did not contain any of the herbs listed on their labels. In their place, “cheap fillers like powdered rice, asparagus and houseplants, and in some cases substances that could be dangerous to those with allergies.”

It’s a scary thought that, in 2015, a national retailer had supplements available for purchase that contained unlisted ingredients. It’s even scarier that, a few weeks ago, investigators discovered that sports nutrition shops in Northern Ireland were selling bodybuilding supplements that contained anabolic steroids.

If you are interested in taking dietary supplements (or hope to crush a ball over the Green Monster), don’t rely on a retailer’s good name or the product label. Research the supplement that interests you with tools like our LegitScript Healthcare Product Legitimacy Checker. If anything you come across seems suspicious, maybe you should check out that Dunkin’ Donuts instead, bro.