Dietary Supplements: Buyer Beware?

Dietary Supplements: Buyer Beware?

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By Catherine Cioffi, RD, Contributing Blogger

Have you ever taken a dietary supplement? According to survey data from 2014, 68% of all U.S. adults report taking some sort of dietary supplement, which seems to be a growing trend among consumers.

From 2009 to 2013, data from Euromonitor International shows that sales of vitamins and dietary supplements increased globally from $19.7 to $24.6 billion! The rising interest in natural health remedies and greater availability of supplements are two likely reasons for this trend. However, a recent study of dietary supplements in New York State suggests that caution is warranted. Here’s why.

Supplement Mislabeling?
Based on a history of complaints regarding the safety and effectiveness of dietary supplements, the New York Attorney General recently commissioned an investigation to test dietary and herbal supplements sold at common stores. The study found that 4 of 5 (80%) products contained none of the herbs on the label (crazy, right!?). Instead, they were filled with unlabeled, so-called “filler” ingredients, like rice, beans, pine, citrus, asparagus, primrose, wheat, and others.

In recent years The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also released cautionary reports on supplement use, noting that certain “natural” supplements have been found to contain hidden active ingredients not listed on the label. Most notably, this has included ingredients only approved for prescription medications, which may cause severe side effects.

How Do Companies Get Away with This?
In the U.S., the FDA sets minimum quality and safety standards that all dietary supplements must meet. However, unlike the rules for medications, FDA-approval is not necessary for dietary supplements prior to entering the market. It’s the manufacturers’ responsibility to make sure that their products meet these standards. Along these lines, the FDA does not review supplements for effectiveness. For new ingredients, the manufacturer must only submit data on its safety.

This difference between supplements and medications is an important point. Although the FDA takes action against products found to be unsafe, contaminated, or misbranded, there are some products that “slip through the cracks” and may remain on the market despite not meeting standards.

Take-Home: Advice for Consumers
Ultimately, a balanced, nutritious diet should be enough to help keep you healthy. However, if you do choose to use a dietary supplement, here are few tips to keep in mind:

  • Check with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian: They can offer advice on a supplement’s safety, side effects, and other considerations for you to know. They can also provide guidance on whether it’s even necessary or worthwhile to spend your money on it.
  • Be careful if mixing medications and dietary supplements: Certain supplements can interact with or reduce the effectiveness of medications, leading to unexpected effects. For example, a variety of drugs are less effective when taken with the herbal supplement St. John’s Wort. This interaction can have serious health consequences depending on the medication or condition.
  • Read the product’s label fully, especially the health claims. Do they sound exaggerated, unrealistic, or extreme? Additionally, remember that “natural” labeling is not well defined, nor does it guarantee that a product is safe. Plenty of natural or herbal supplements can interact with medications (as mentioned above), or have negative side effects.
  • Visit the product’s website for more detailed information. This might explain the manufacturers’ safety testing protocol, or summarize findings from research to support any claimed benefits. Be wary of products supported only by undocumented reports, testimonials from consumers, or “internal” data that is not shared.

For more resources and tips for using supplements, check out the FDA’s website, which offers a Safety Reporting Portal (SRP) where consumers can report any problems with a dietary supplement, and a safety and advisories page with up-to-date information on FDA-regulated products.


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