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The dirt on dietary supplements

May 14, 2009 |  2:33 pm

The Food and Drug Administration has cracked down on several manufacturers of dietary supplements lately. In March, the FDA identified three weight-loss products that were tainted with active pharmaceutical ingredients -- bringing the list of tainted products to 72. And earlier this month, the manufacturer of the weight-loss supplement Hydroxycut recalled the product after the FDA linked it to 23 cases of liver damage and one death.

Some nutritional supplements have real value. Folic acid taken by women of reproductive age can help protect against some birth defects and premature birth. Lutein improves eye health. Calcium helps bones. Vitamin D is important for numerous body functions. And omega-3 fatty acids can boost heart health. Others, too, appear to have at least some modest benefit.

But the 1994 passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act paved the way for a marketplace in which manufacturers of dietary supplements can churn out pure trash -- or worse, dangerous products -- with few repercussions. The situation is detailed in an in-depth piece in this week's Sports Illustrated titled "What you don't know might kill you." The article, by David Epstein and George Dohrmann, focuses in large part on sports supplements, but the lack of consumer protections extend to all forms of supplements.

According to the Sports Illustrated story:

  • The industry is a "Pandora's Box of false claims, untested products and bogus science."
  • "Today some of the biggest [supplement] companies are just big marketing departments."
  • The industry "remains fertile ground for kitchen chemists with little or no formal education in science and nutrition -- and in some notorious cases former steroid users and dealers."
  • Of DSHEA: "That legislation, heavy with lobbyists' fingerprints, razed virtually every barrier to entry into the marketplace."

It's good to see the FDA apparently stepping up its efforts to root out the bad players in the marketplace. But the agency is swimming upstream. It's time to re-examine the farcically named Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (just how is this educational?) and implement laws that prevent consumers from becoming guinea pigs for unscrupulous kitchen chemists.

-- Shari Roan

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