Monday, March 21, 2016

One More Time: Dietary Supplements

About every two months the subject of dietary supplements comes up.  That is probably because I subscribe to an e-mail newsletter skeptical of false medical claims and promises, and this e-mail frequently cites cases of supplement vendors being prosecuted and fined by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Supplements, including multivitamin and mineral pills are very popular in America.  Due to pressure from lobbyists, Congress passed a law that they be treated like food and not like drugs.  From this law they gain significant freedom, but it does prohibit them from claiming that their product cures any disease.  FDA guidelines on supplements explain that unlike drugs where they require extensive testing, with supplements the FDA gets involved in problems or safety issues only after they arise.  (That means someone has an adverse reaction and the doctor reports it.)  It is the manufacturer’s responsibility to ensure safety.  There are no regulations regarding dosage, and if they advertise benefits that are not true, it becomes a case for the FTC to prove that they are making false promises.  Remember, any claim of a cure is automatically illegal.

The problem is that when it’s left to the manufacturer, a lot can go wrong.  Documented here are examples of how many supplements have significantly more or less of the listed ingredient, in some cases none at all.

That is not the only problem.  Many supplements have been shown to be completely ineffective for what they are reputed to do.  This includes fish oil, Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins in general and glucosamine, to name just a few.

Glowing reports and endorsements, sometimes paid endorsements and sometimes endorsements from friends and neighbors, lure customers in, but the ads come with warnings that most people ignore, because the supplements are all natural.  This one is typical:  “These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.  This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.  Results are atypical.  Results will vary.  Always consult your healthcare provider before taking any supplement.” 

Now CBS gives more bad news.  The ultimate problem is that supplements are dangerous.  There have been documented cases where the contents of the bottle did not match the label, but were in fact poison.  This report confirms what I have read elsewhere that even accurately formulated supplements from reputable companies can interact with each other or with prescription medications causing problems.

As Americans spend billions on supplements, the experts continue to advise getting your vitamins and minerals from the food you eat, and checking with your doctor before adding any supplements to your diet.  Unfortunately Americans rarely do that.  They believe in supplements to the point that food companies now increase sales by adding them to their product and proudly announcing it on the packaging.  Given all the watch outs with supplements, this is a scary progression.

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