Date Published: May 15, 2019
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Author(s): Nelleke H. J. Oostdijk, Mattijs S. Lambooij, Peter Beinema, Albert Wong, Florian A. Kunneman, Peter H. J. Keizers, Luigi Lavorgna.
Dietary supplements are products that are widely used for instance as energisers or to lose weight. There have been cases reported where undeclared ingredients present in such supplements have caused adverse effects on the health of the user. As there are many different products to choose from, it seems impossible to predict which might contain harmful components and to ban them from the market. Nonetheless, the use of dietary supplements and the experiences of users are shared in online discussions. We describe the development of a search engine to retrieve products associated with certain effects. Upon application we were able to retrieve a list of dietary supplements that are repeatedly associated with excessive effects by users on public fora. The top of the list contains supplements that have previously been banned because they contained undeclared harmful components. The use of the search engine as described here is a powerful method for making a risk-based selection of dietary supplements which can then be analysed for the presence of illegal or other unwanted components.
Dietary supplements are products that increase the intake of components whose supply via the daily diet is inadequate. Such products may contain bioactive substances, i.e. components which have a physiological activity or function. Their full composition must, however, always be declared and products must be safe for use and not jeopardise people’s health [1, 2]. Nevertheless, many examples exist of undeclared bioactive substances in dietary supplements being involved in causing adverse effects, leading to serious harm such as cardiac arrest and haemorrhagic stroke [3, 4]. Specifically, workout and weight-loss products are often spiked with stimulants making the products (more) effective, which seems to be part of a marketing strategy aimed at reeling in customers . As the product label does not list these substances, the adverse effects they may cause are not readily recognised and likely to be underreported.
The overall aim of our method was to extract those paragraphs from forum posts which mentioned the effects associated with the use of dietary supplements. The human expert then has the opportunity to inspect the results.
Even though they can give rise to significant physiological effect, dietary supplements are not under the strict control that, for instance, medicines are. Independent testing of supplement composition or other quality hallmarks is performed on a risk basis and most of the time only after they have been associated with serious harm. We wondered if we could somehow detect suspect supplements among the vast offer of products available, using publicly available information. Eventually a shortlist of suspect supplements could be subjected to chemical analysis before serious harm is reported, and thus offer a tailored risk-based model of analysis.
With the newly developed search engine we were able to retrieve, with high accuracy, a list of food supplements that have been repeatedly associated with strong effects by users. The top of the list contains supplements that have been banned because they contained undeclared harmful components. The use of the search engine, as described here, is a powerful method of making a risk-based selection of dietary supplements to be analysed for the presence of illegal or other unwanted components.