Friday, February 6, 2015

Know What You Are Buying

I have warned about herbal supplements in the past, but in light of this revelation from CBS news, perhaps it’s time to renew that warning.

The article highlights an ongoing study of supplements.  “The investigation, led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, focused on a variety of herbal supplements from four major retailers: GNC, Target, Walmart and Walgreen Co. Lab tests determined that only 21 percent of the products actually had DNA from the plants advertised on the labels.”  Does that mean that in 78 percent of the bottles they could not detect any trace of the ingredients listed?  That’s exactly what it means.  Three out of four people who buy these supplements are actually getting something else.

And people do buy them.  “A 2013 study from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research estimated there are about 65,000 dietary supplements on the market consumed by more than 150 million Americans.”  That’s almost half the population.

Supplements are supervised by the FDA, but under a different program than prescription medicine.  The companies are required to verify safety and proper labeling, but they are rarely checked.  They work more on the honor system.  When they are tested, this is often the outcome – tests find little or none of the labeled ingredients and in rare cases some contamination. 

So what’s a consumer to do?  You could rely on expert opinion, but that can also be problematic.  This website describes a recent $9 million fine issued by the Federal Trade Commission against a purveyor of Green Coffee Bean Extract (GCBE), who used an appearance on the Dr. OZ television show to launch sales of his product.  The FTC charged that he and his companies made deceptive claims that their supplement could cause consumers to lose 17 pounds and 16 percent of their body fat in just 12 weeks without diet or exercise, and that the claim was backed up by a clinical study.  None of this, of course was true.  Soon after he agreed to appear on the show, presenting himself as an independent expert on GCBE, his company began selling it on the Internet.  He used the on-air appearance to direct viewers to these websites.  After his appearance “his companies sold tens of millions of dollars' worth” to people who sadly, continue to believe in weight-loss magic without diet or exercise.

These examples reinforce the need for critical thinking, the kind of skepticism that identifies what’s too good to be true and steers clear.  When buying supplements, understand that they are not necessarily vigorously tested, may not even contain what is on the label, and won’t usually deliver the results advertised or promised in those stories from Facebook friends.  Likewise, those selling weight loss without diet and exercise are selling “snake oil” no matter how much you might want to trust the source referring them.

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