First let me explain what is meant legally by the terms supplements and FDA approved. A supplement is a product which contains a substance or a combination of substances that have possible beneficial effects that haven’t been approved (in this case we can substitute the word approved for studied) or researched by the Food and Drug Administration. This sounds rather menacing, doesn’t it? Why would you decide to take something that hasn’t been approved by the government agency that tests what’s in our food and medications? On the other hand, most products “approved” by the FDA are pharmaceuticals and given the size of the industry and the billions of dollars it generates in revenue, I can see why.
Let me supply an example. Fen phen was labelled as the new weight loss wonder drug approved by the FDA in the 70’s, until they found people suffering from valvular heart diseases at ages inconsistent with the diseases epidemiology. In 1996 a 30 year old female died after taking it for only a month. They pulled the drug from the market when studies found a 23 fold increase in pulmonary hypertension leading to an array of heart problems. Ma Huang is a supplement routinely found in Chinese medicine. Ephedrine, as it is medically referred to, is active ingredient in Ma Huang and FenPhen. The Chinese have used it for the common cold, asthma, headaches, and hay fever. What is different is not the herb or chemical stimulant, it is the way the drug is prescribed. You can see that a “prescription” for weight loss can lend itself to abuse and it is because of this abuse that Ma Huang is now a difficult ingredient to find in American Chinese medicine. I personally believe that although the court cases and controversy over the side effects of Fen phen are what got the drug pulled, the real reason is that Fen phen is a chemical cousin of amphetamine and when the FDA found that most of the ephedrine on the market was going to the production of illegal methamphetamine. Pharmaceutical companies don’t want us making our own drugs be they palliative or recreational.
I was told by an organic chemistry professor at UCLA that industrial machinery sometimes run on alcohol and therefore the need to have industrial alcohol. To make industrial alcohol they take normal alcohol that you and I can drink and add a benzene ring to it making it poisonous. Why? So we can’t make our own cheap booze. Prohibition was just as much about commerce and industry as it was about moral politics.
The FDA is more tool than organization, used by pharmaceutical companies to protect their precious pain killers and antibiotics. So are non-approved FDA supplements safe? Good question. As you can see non-regulation can have it’s drawbacks because now people have to trust themselves and the authority figure of their trusted doctors to wade through all the bullshit of what supplements work for what causes, which companies are trustworthy in their production, when and how to use them. The supplement industry is swollen with cheap products from unreliable sources, and has been further damaged by its role in sports technology (see HGH use). All I can say is that performance athletes are an elite group and are only concerned with what is effective for the purpose of their training. So if supplements are being used to change the face of certain sports, then are they effective? Apparently so.
The Real War on Drugs is not over psychoactive chemicals like marijuana, cocaine, and other recreational substances. No the Real War on Drugs involves the medication you give your dad for his heart, or the pain pills MDs give to athletes to recover from soreness. And that War my friends, is one we are losing.