Nutrition Supplements: Are They Safe?

To help jump start his day, Ronald Kaufman blends up a special potion of yogurt and nutritional supplements, like protein.

"It's 20 different things that I put into the drink," said Kaufman.

Ronald is one of the 150 million Americans who take nutritional supplements daily.

In fact, sales of supplements totaled 28 billion dollars in 2010. That's up more than 1 billion dollars from the previous year.

And once January rolls around, sports nutrition and weight loss formulas start to fly off the shelves.

"Consumers really start to make new year's resolutions centering around a healthy lifestyle," said dietitian Eric Palinski.

Which supplements are right for you, and what's safe?

Registered dietitian Erin Palinski explains dietary supplements are regulated by the federal government as a category of food, not as a drug.

Palinski said, "Medications are tested and verified for potency and purity. With dietary supplements, there is no testing standard, and that's where we can run into issues."

Palinski says you need to be a savvy shopper and read labels and ingredient lists.

Those who are looking to build muscle and improve performance often tout the benefits of protein, creatine, and CLA. Though studies on creatine and CLA are mixed, all three are generally considered safe, if taken at recommended levels.

"Even generally safe supplement ingredients, if you're taking them in too high a dose, can be potentially dangerous," said Palinski.

Leading to things like dehydration, increased risk for kidney stones, and gastrointestinal issues. 

One of the most popular supplements for athletes looking to boost their energy is caffeine.

"In up to about 300 mg per day, it may help increase athletic performance, but above that amount we can run at the risk, since it's a stimulant, of increasing blood pressure. In very high amounts, it can actually lead to seizures," said Palinski.

Some fat-burning supplements, which contain a mix of herbal ingredients, can also act as a stimulant. Are they effective? Our experts say there's no clear cut answer yet. In the meantime, the Council for Responsible Nutrition says always consult your doctor first.

"Long-term use of certain fat burners can have some very adverse events in the liver," said Taylor Wallace of Council for Responsible Nutrition.

Also, keep an eye out for ephedra, which has been banned by the FDA. And check labels for bitter orange, also referred to as synephrine. It is similar to the main chemical in ephedra and the government says there's little evidence it's any safer. 

"This has been linked with many serious side effects, including stroke, heart attack," said Palinski.

If you choose to use athletic or weight loss supplements, everyone agrees, watch where you buy and stick with reputable brands and retailers.

"If a claim for a dietary supplement is too good to be true, then it probably is," said Wallace.

Ronald talks to his doctor about every supplement he swallows.

He said, "when I take the supplements, my energy goes up. I just feel better."

When you're shopping for supplements, Palinski recommends looking for products that take part in the USP dietary supplement verification program. A USP seal means the product meets stringent, voluntary standards for safety and purity.

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