Supplement Safety

People with diabetes often take dietary supplements in the hope of improving their blood glucose control, or with some other health goal in mind. Some people view supplements as a better or safer alternative to drugs. But the questionable manufacturing practices of some supplement makers can have potentially dangerous consequences.

A recent Reuters article comes on the heels of a report that looked into a 2008 production mishap that left more than 200 supplement users ill. The affected supplements, called “Total Body Formula” and “Total Body Mega Formula,” were liquid formulas that contained selenium. Due to a human error at one of the manufacturer’s suppliers, some of each formula received up to 200 times the intended amount of selenium. Selenium is a heavy metal that is broken down slowly by the body, so the effects of an overdose tend to be prolonged. At the time of this incident, the FDA was phasing in rules for supplement manufacturers aimed at ensuring greater consistency and purity, including a requirement to test ingredients obtained by outside sources. So it is conceivable that under current law, the selenium overload would not have happened. However, this supposes that company would have voluntarily followed the law — the FDA doesn’t have the resources to do many checks — and that it would have tested selenium concentration specifically, since the FDA leaves it to companies to decide which tests are relevant.


One way to help ensure the safety of the supplements you take is to look for the US Pharmacopeia (USP) seal on the label. The USP is an independent nonprofit organization that runs a voluntary testing and auditing program for dietary supplements. Its seal indicates that a supplement contains the listed ingredients in their labeled amounts, does not contain harmful contaminants, will break down in the body as intended, and was manufactured according to FDA guidelines. The USP provides lists of verified supplements by brand, as well as a visual primer on choosing supplements with your doctor.

Do you feel comfortable taking dietary supplements under the current regulations? Have you already looked into the safety and quality of any supplements that you take? Do you take only supplements that you have discussed with your doctor, as recommended by most health authorities (including Diabetes Self-Management)? Should the FDA supervise dietary supplements more closely, similarly to the way it regulates over-the-counter drugs? Leave a comment below!

  • Phyllis

    Most of the supplements I take are from Shaklee – they have done extensive testing on all their vitamins and supplements and I’ve trusted them for years to have a superior product. Hope this will help others….

  • Shirley McClelland

    Thank you so much for this very helpful information concerning dietary supplements. I have felt like I was in quicksand at times trying to select a safe brand of supplement. Your article was so informative that I e-mailed it to my daughters. Thanks again.

  • Marcie

    There are some supplements that I feel that I need to take because of the medications I’m on and some because I know they’re good for me. All have the USP seal.

    B-12 for metformin. However, I take a B-complex, because I’ve read that it’s not good to take a large-ish amount of just one B vitamin.

    Co-Q10 for simvastatin.

    Fish oil to be sure I get enough Omega-3. And, I’ve read that it helps with depression.

    Cranberry to help prevent bladder infections.

    A mineral complex of calcium, magnesium, and zinc because I’m a woman and because it’s good for the heart.

    It kinda makes me laugh, because I take more supplements than meds!

  • Larry

    I was tired of paying 40.00 for 30 pills of Lovaza. Most insurance does not have a prescription payment for “vitamins” We need to get the FDA to approve these vitamins or support this organization to approve those companies that meet the required standards. That would make a vast improvement in health care for the patients.

  • Manny

    Anyone with a diagnosis of Diabetes for their own sake needs to see a physician. There is a whole lot more to just the pharmaceutical aspect. Your eyes need to be checked by an opthalmologist, as the disease can progress to blindness. There are parameters that require baselines with follow up assessments at regular intervals. Finally, do not take over-the-counter medications, or any herbs, or substance, without your doctor’s permission!!!

  • Lisa B

    I greatly appreciate your article, because i take alot of supplements, some at my doctor’s orders. I feel that they do help with my diabetes and my menopause-go-round. Tomorrow my doctor will have a full list of what i’m taking and when and with what. He also wants me to take a B-Complex for my menopausal symptoms.
    I understand what Marcie means tho, i’m also taking more supplements than meds. But i do feel they’re doing some good.