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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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Comments (5)

I agree that sports supplements, as a category, are often formulated, packaged and marketed in a less than responsible fashion. Even the price point on these products gets outrageously out of line. However, the Dietary Supplement and Health Education act is not to be faulted here for a sports supplement industry whose indiscretions are incomparably smaller than that of the pharmaceutical industry and its obscenely inaccurate claims and horrific side effects. DSHEA protects us from draconian drug-industry sponsored regulations which would convert vitamin C into an available-by-prescription only substance, or would make it illegal to purchase oregano at a local health food store for a cold, even if it has proven antimicrobial effects superior to that of conventional antibiotics. (If you doubt these facts, visit Medline, or www.greenmedinfo.com to see the research yourself).

There are so many products in the industry, and it's hard to know what to trust. Only a small percentage follow GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) used in the pharma industry and guarantee that their supplements contain exactly what's on the label, no extra drugs and qith consistent quantity. I value the opinion of the NutriSearch Comparative Guide to Nutritional Supplements which rated over 1500 supplements on a 5 star scale using over a dozen criteria. With a bit of research, you can find a good source for a supplement that is proven safe and effective.

Sayer Ji said "a sports supplement industry whose indiscretions are incomparably smaller than that of the pharmaceutical industry and its obscenely inaccurate claims and horrific side effects."

Supplement manufacturers have no regulation or testing required, so any potential side effects do not have to be listed. For pharmaceuticals, the testing and regulation is so rigid (as it should be) that every possible side effect, even those that have never happened, must be listed.

I don't know where you get "obscenely inaccurate claims" from. To say this is the way the pharma industry works is ridiculous. All claims have to be tested and approved. In addition, drugs are followed once they are on the market and additional warnings have to be added as discovered.

It is so frustrating to hear people write things like this, which are so inaccurate and a result of not understanding how the industry works.

The FDA is sponsored by big pharma. There is a huge conflict of interest as many of the FDA staff are drug company employees and go from the FDA back to the drug companies.

Dietary Supplements that can improve and maintain your health are a threat to their income, there suppressive hold over our health and wellbeing.

Drugs kill thousand and thousands every year. The FDA rarely even takes notice. Never pulls a drug right off like they will do a nutritional product that is thought to have made someone ill!

Profit is more important than truth or health of the public.

There have been some great comments in response to this post. As someone who works in the dietary supplement industry, I know that the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) provides FDA with appropriate authority to protect consumers, while still offering them a wide selection of safe and beneficial products. For anyone who is interested in learning more about what DSHEA does (and does not do), I'd encourage you to read the Council for Responsible Nutrition's response to the Sports Illustrated article: http://www.crnusa.org/CRNPR09ResponseSportsIllustrated051909.html



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