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Adulterated Dietary Supplements: Challenges and Consumer Safety

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Dietary supplements (DS) and Herbal Formulations (HF) are widely used to support and enhance human health and well-being. Over the last 20 years, the use of DS and HF have continued to grow in many countries.  COVID-19 has also promoted the industry's growth[1] as these products have been extensively marketed to boost the immune system and minimize the risk of inflammation. The burgeoning market of DS has prompted many manufacturers to adulterate their products with synthetic drugs- Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API). These undeclared molecules added as adulterants to enhance these products' (perceived) potency pose a threat to consumer health. Many consumers are unaware of the potential risks associated with adulterated dietary supplements. This can make them more susceptible to misleading marketing claims. The complex and global nature of the dietary supplement supply chain makes it difficult to track the origin of ingredients and identify potential contamination points. Since the discovery of the action of Phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE-5) inhibitors to treat Erectile Dysfunction (ED), the production, distribution, and marketing of dietary supplements to treat ED are on the rise too[2]. There have been many reports on how DS products marketed for ED have been adulterated. Inaccurate claims and adulteration of dietary supplements with synthetic PDE-5 molecules are also rising. 60-70 % of ED occurs in patients with hypertension and ischemic disease. PDE-5 inhibitors show negative pharmacodynamic interactions with the drugs indicated for these diseases. Adulterators often use sophisticated techniques to disguise the presence of synthetic drugs. This makes the detection and quantification of adulterants a challenge.

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Regulatory agencies are constantly developing new and improved methods to detect synthetic drugs in dietary supplements. Regulatory standards and acceptable levels for contaminants can change frequently. Analytical methods need to be adaptable to keep pace with these updates. As regulations and detection methods improve, adulterators may also develop new methods to introduce synthetic drugs into supplements. These challenges highlight the ongoing battle between those who adulterate dietary supplements and the efforts to ensure consumer safety and product quality. Analytical chemists face several challenges in detecting adulteration in food and dietary supplements. Adulterators are constantly devising new methods to mask the presence of contaminants or add substances that mimic the desired characteristics of the product. New adulterants are continually being introduced, requiring scientists to develop or adapt analytical methods for their detection. Accurate and precise analytical methods are critical to extracting, detecting, and quantifying these molecules in dietary supplements.  Developing and validating new analytical methods can be a lengthy process. Rapid analysis is often desired, but achieving accuracy and sensitivity simultaneously can be difficult. The natural complexity of DS matrices, with various components and potential interferences, can complicate the analysis and obscure the presence of adulterants. Analytical chemists play a crucial role in safeguarding food safety and consumer health by overcoming these challenges. Advanced analytical instruments required for sophisticated detection limit the accessibility of these methods for some laboratories. 

Laboratories in the Merieux network worldwide have developed methods many manufacturers and distributors use in their surveillance programs. Mérieux Nutrisciences has been at the forefront of food, ingredients, and DS testing. Our scientists have developed methods for accurately detecting and quantifying synthetic anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic, sleep aid, and  PDE-5 inhibitor molecules in DS. Validated methods are reviewed for accuracy, precision, spike recovery, and uncertainty. Please contact us for a complete catalog of our capability and expertise in detecting and quantifying adulterant molecules in Dietary Supplements.


[1] Quarda, D. et al A Global Overview of Dietary Supplements: Regulation, Market Trends, Usage during the COVID-19 Pandemic, and Health Effects. Nutrients 2023, 15, 3320  

[2] Charlie, L. Identification of Erectile Dysfunction Drugs in Dietary Supplements by Liquid Chromatography Ion Trap mass Spectrometry, Journal of Dietary Supplements 2021, 18(3), 261-277

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