Think again: Dietary Supplements

Are they safe? Do they work? There is stuff you should know before you shell out money for those flashy bottles of health promises.

dietary supplementsPerhaps you saw the latest news that the New York state Attorney General issued a ‘cease and desist’ order to four big retailers in that state for selling dietary supplements. DNA testing was done on an array of common herbals and supplements. The tests found the products contained contaminants not identified on ingredient labels and in some cases did NOT contain the ingredient advertised. There is something you should know about supplements – they don’t have to be shown to be either safe or effective. They can just be sold on the shelves and promoted as wonder products.

The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994 made it easier to sell dietary supplements – like vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids or other substances that you can purchase without a prescription of demonstration of need.

They are not considered “drugs” and so are not regulated like over-the-counter or prescription drugs which must demonstrate safety and usefulness before being approved by the FDA. Dietary supplements get a pass.

The law included an important provision that placed the safety burden on the manufacturer. It is assumed that they will not put out an unsafe product. However, without quality testing, some products have been shown to contain contaminants or real drugs. If a person is allergic to the contaminant which is not listed on the label, they could suffer effects. If a drug is present, it could cause interaction with other medications or make existing conditions worse or even cause death.

It is assumed the the label showing ingredients and amounts of each are correct. There has been efforts to spot test the products. The findings have not reflected well on the industry adhering to these good faith assumptions. The majority of products tested in some studies have failed to have the listed amount or even the listed ingredient inside.

Glucosamine (with or without chondroitin) does not have a plausible mechanism to help with osteoarthritis and tests shows it it just an expensive placebo. It doesn't do what it says.

Glucosamine (with or without chondroitin) does not have a plausible mechanism to help with osteoarthritis and tests shows it it just an expensive placebo. It doesn’t do what it says.

The manufacturer does not have to show that it is effective. Dietary supplements are not considered drugs and so they can not make the claim that they “diagnose,” “treat,” “prevent,” “cure,” or “mitigate” any condition or illness. You’ll see this noted on bottles and in commercials. It’s known in skeptical circles as the “quack Miranda warning”. The assumption here is that such products may be beneficial to overall health or can shorten the duration of a cold, boost your immune system, remove toxins, and may other dubious claims. If the substance has a plausible mechanism for working, chances are there has been actual tests done. Results are most often less than impressive, such as for echinacea, glucosamine and zinc, certainly not as effective as drugs specifically developed to treat medical conditions. If such ingredients actually are effective, they have been snapped up by pharmaceutical companies and processed to be most effective in order to be prescribed by doctors.

Some marketed supplements – like vitamins and minerals – are beneficial for people with deficiencies or certain conditions. A few do have well-established beneficial effects but your doctor should be recommending what you might benefit from taking, an available supplement or a prescription to treat the condition. Always consult your doctor about taking supplements.

Do you know what's in your supplements? Are you taking them because of the likely empty promises from advertising?

Do you know what’s in your supplements? Are you taking them because of the likely empty promises from advertising?

Dietary supplements are potentially hazardous, may be misleading in their claims, and are often simply a waste of money. The take away here is that dietary supplements don’t undergo FDA review for safety and effectiveness before they’re sold. Therefore, considering the evidence we have on their efficacy and safety, the risks appear to outweigh any benefit for using them.

Beware of the advertising for such products. Consult neutral sources of references (even Wikipedia) and take careful note of the negative aspects associated with the product.

Here are some good places to learn about dietary supplements.

Federal Trade Commision: Dietary Supplements

FDA: Dietary Supplements

Science based medicine on dietary supplements

“Dietary Supplements,” Herbs, and Hormones – Quackwatch

Spread the word.

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