Watch CBSN Live

Supplements: Medicine or Snake Oil?

Though he's in peak physical condition, Phoenix Suns forward Tom Gugliotta was having trouble sleeping after strenuous games. So, according to the FDA., he tried an herbal supplement that promised to help his muscles relax..

"If you read the advertisements from the company, you'd think it was a very good thing to take," he explains. "It never entered my mind that this is something that could kill you or make you very sick."

Instead, it sent Gugliotta into a seizure. He stopped breathing on the way to the emergency room.

Gugliotta is one of millions of Americans who assume dietary supplements are harmless. But it turns out what he took contains a dangerous chemical known as GBL which has been linked to eight deaths and more than a 250 serious illnesses. We found products containing GBL easily available on the Internet, despite FDA warnings.

Doctors say it's a prime example of what can happen in an industry booming and without bounds. There are more than 15,000 dietary supplements on the market today. But because they are regulated as foods and not drugs, no rigorous testing is required before they hit the shelves.

"They can put anything they want in those bottles and sell them," says Dr. Marcia Angell, Editor-in-Chief of The New England Journal of Medicine. "They may contain contaminents: heavy metals, lead arsenic, mercury. You simply don't know what's in those bottles".

The dietary supplement industry insists the GBL story is an isolated incident and bristles at the notion that it's bottling dangerous snake oil.

"Dietary supplements are safe. We have good manufacturing practices. We have dosage limits on products. We have a rigorous code of ethics," says John Cordaro, President of the Council for Responsible Nutrition.

The FDA admits it often can't control potentially dangerous supplements until after they're on the market. Still, that doesn't seem to be hurting business. Americans are willing to spend 14 billion dollars a year on dietary supplements, while questions about their safety and effectiveness remain largely unanswered.

View CBS News In