Unwanted Substances in Food Supplements — Chromatography Explores – Chromatography Today

As people become more aware of their health — they are taking more control of their bodies and weight. This leads to increased exercise and activity (hopefully), better food and diet choices and a burgeoning supplement market.

In recent years, the supplement market has seen increasing sales, with the UK market alone estimated to be worth over £600 million. With the supplement market expected to grow by over 7% annually over the next few years, that’s a lot of pills, powder and drinks that will be manufactured, sold and consumed. But can you be sure what you’re getting?

RASFF has the answer

A paper published recently in the Journal of the Association of Public AnalystsA Review of Methods for the Simultaneous Detection of Illegal Ingredients in Food Supplements — suggests that we can’t. The team report that food supplements are: ‘quite often adulterated with a complex range of compounds and substances.’

The UK based team carried out their research by examining two major food safety databases — the European Commission run RASFF (Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed) and the United States’ FDA run Enforcement Reports. These two databases are concerned with food safety and collect all data food safety data — including undeclared and unauthorised substances.

Viagra and appetite suppression

The unwanted substances found in the food supplements include:

permitted food additives in excess of their limits, contaminants, unauthorised novel food ingredients, unauthorised nutritionally related compounds, excess vitamins, controlled drugs and one instance of the poison strychnine.

Whilst this quote illustrates the tremendous range of unwanted substances in our food supplements, it is in the details that perhaps the most surprising information is found. When the team looked at the RASFF database from 2009 to 2016 — the most frequent undeclared pharmacologically active ingredients in food supplements included sildenafil and sibutramine (including analogues and derivatives). Sildenafil is the medication sold as Viagra to treat erectile dysfunction and sibutramine is used primarily as an appetite suppressant to help treat obesity. So how can we find these substances?

Chromatography seeks the answers

The team suggest that the first choice for screening food supplements for the main pharmacological compounds that they have identified is liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry (LC-MS) — with NMR an ‘excellent first-line method of control for herbal food supplements’ if it is available. The benefits of using liquid chromatography in conjunction with mass spectrometry are discussed in the article, Capillary Flow LC-MS Unites Sensitivity and Throughput.

So be careful what you buy and where you buy it from. That unlicensed supplement could produce some very unwanted — or perhaps wanted — side effects.


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