Three reminders for consumers when purchasing health supplements and complementary medicines

An article entitled “Unapproved Pharmaceutical Ingredients Included in Dietary Supplements Associated with US Food and Drug Administration Warnings” was published 12 October 2018 in JAMA. It stated ‘potentially harmful active pharmaceuticals continue to be identified in over-the-counter and dietary supplements’ – listing specifically sibutramine for weight loss supplements, and synthetic steroids or steroid-like ingredients for muscle building supplements. This made headline news worldwide, including in South Africa.


The Health Products Association of Southern Africa (HPA), the leading trade association for the natural health industry and functional food industry, has three important tips for South African consumers and trade to be aware of regarding all supplements and Complementary and Traditional Medicines.

The products referred to are illegal, unsafe and tainted, and should be avoided. Do not purchase products with unusual names sold by unknown or unfamiliar brands and companies. Purchase products from nationally recognised brands or store brands, and through reputable retailers, distributors, or websites.

Be wary of products marketed as health supplements and/or Complementary and Traditional Medicines that have drug-like claims or promise unrealistic results, especially in the categories of sexual enhancement, weight loss, or muscle building. These tainted, illegal products are not health supplements or Complementary and Traditional Medicines. They are not generally distributed or marketed by HPA member companies.

Always talk to your doctor, healthcare professional or functional medicine practitioner about all supplements and other self-care products you use, especially if you’re thinking about starting something new.

It is important for consumers to be aware that the products mentioned in the article are tainted and emanate from a fraudulent industry which does not represent the majority of South African companies that are invested in health and wellness as well as primary and preventative healthcare.

The mainstream, responsible health supplement and Complementary Medicines market promotes safe, quality products that are manufactured and marketed by law-abiding, ethical companies committed to consumers and their safety.

HPA Recommendations to help South African consumers make better selections

Manage your expectations

Health supplements and Complementary Medicines can play an important role in good health, but they are meant to supplement other healthy habits and should be used in combination with smart lifestyle choices such as a healthy diet, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep and consulting with a healthcare professional. Dietary supplements are not intended to have the same immediate or dramatic effects as allopathic drugs.

Don’t look for quick fixes

If you are taking a health supplement for weight loss, expect to lose the weight gradually—and only if combined with proper diet and exercise.

If you are taking a dietary supplement as a sexual enhancement product, there are ingredients (like ginkgo biloba that supports circulation and L-arginine that indirectly supports healthy blood flow), that can provide some benefit in this area, but not the dramatic effect you would get from a sexual enhancement allopathic drug. In other words, regular use of a supplement might provide subtle, incremental improvement, but don’t expect to take a supplement and be immediately able to perform.

If you are interested in athletic accomplishment, there are a variety of products that can help replenish fluids and electrolytes, provide extra energy, improve or reduce recovery time between training sessions, and help improve overall athletic performance. But if you’re interested in body-building, don’t expect dramatic or instantaneous effects from supplements alone—look for modest effects over a longer period of time.

If you are taking products, especially in the categories of sexual enhancement, weight loss, or muscle building, and experience immediate or dramatic effects similar to what you might experience from an allopathic drug, it may signal that the product is spiked. For your own safety, it is advisable to stop taking the product. …it probably is. Steer clear of supplements that make drug-like claims, promise to work instantly, or offer miracle results

If it sounds too good to be true…

…it probably is. Steer clear of supplements that make drug-like claims, promise to work instantly, or offer miracle results

You want products that are legal

Avoid products with claims like ‘barely legal’, ‘won’t be available much longer’, or ‘limited supply’. That’s a tip-off that there may already be international and/or government concern about the product’s safety.

Look for nationally recognised brands or store brands from a trusted retailer

Companies with nationally recognised brands have a lot at stake and consequently invest a great deal of time, resources and effort to ensure that their products live up to their reputation. There are also many quality specialty, regional and local products available. However, if you’re not familiar with a company, do some research before you buy its products.

Watch where you buy

While the internet can be a viable option for purchasing quality supplement products, be aware that many products associated with the contamination problems identified by FDA or other governmental bodies and regulatory authorities are offered exclusively through internet sites from fly-by-night companies.

Look for membership of an industry trade association

While membership of an industry trade association is not a bright-line test, companies that join the Health Products Association of Southern Africa demonstrate long-term commitment to the marketplace. A list of HPA member companies can be found on the HPA website.

Visit the company’s website

A slick website does not guarantee a quality product, but the absence of any website presence—or one that doesn’t provide a customer contact number—may be an indication that the company doesn’t intend to be in business long enough to interact with its customers.

Look for product labels and ingredient lists

Companies that offer products online but don’t disclose a product’s label or ingredients may be trying to hide something. Being able to review the product label and list of ingredients can provide an added level of assurance that the product is legitimate.

Ask about longevity

The longevity of a company is no guarantee of quality, and new companies can make great, and sometimes innovative, products. However, you want to have confidence that a company will be around long enough to stand behind its product. Knowing if a firm has been around for more than a year or two is one more piece of information that can be factored into your decision.

Be careful of companies that regularly undergo name changes

It’s okay to change your name, particularly in a merger or buy-out situation, but companies that constantly change their names may be looking to hide past problems.