Recently, Wal-Mart, GNC and Target were all served cease-and-desist letters by the New York state attorney general’s office, asking them to stop selling their store-brand supplements after an investigation found that not only did they contain several ingredients not identified on their labels as an ingredient, in many cases the herbal supplement itself was not actually present.
The case brings to light some of the major problems in the herbal supplement industry today, ranging from baseless claims to fraudulent manufacturing and marketing. How did we get to this point, and more importantly, what can we do about it?
Many people assume that the US Food and Drug Administration regulates the manufacture and marketing of dietary supplements to the same extent as prescription and over-the-counter medications, but the reality is that it doesn’t. In 1994, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) became law, effectively taking the FDA out of the process of approving and monitoring dietary supplements.
Consequently, the manufacturer alone is responsible for ensuring that its supplements are safe, effective and free of impurities and contaminants. Furthermore, the manufacturer is solely responsible for ensuring that its products’ information labels are “truthful and not misleading.”
Since 2007, supplement manufacturers have been legally required to promptly report any serious injuries or illnesses related to the use of their products. In contrast, US drug manufacturers are required to make a full report on all adverse events to the FDA, and for an event that is regarded as both serious and unexpected, the report must be made “as soon as possible, but not later than 15 days after” it becomes known.
When the FDA is notified that someone has suffered an adverse reaction from taking a supplement, the agency is responsible for investigating the report. The FDA is also obligated to notify consumers about any safety issues they discover.
So where does this leave you, the consumer? Frankly, it can be difficult to determine if a product is going to be safe and effective for you.
Before taking any dietary supplement, consider the following questions:
1. How can I know if a supplement will be safe and effective for me?
Buy from a trusted source. The supplement should be pharmaceutical-grade and “as labeled,” i.e. 5,000iu of vitamin D3 on the label ensures that 5,000iu of D3 is present in each pill in the entire bottle. The supplement should not contain common allergens such as gluten and soy, as they create a higher risk for potential adverse reactions.
Once you establish a trusted supplier, make sure to read the label on the product packaging. Ask your physician for advice, and use the Internet to find any scientific research that may have been conducted on the product. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) offer free information about supplements on their websites. If you decide to take a supplement, follow the dosing directions on the package or the modified dose recommended by your own doctor.
2. I take some prescription medications; will taking a dietary supplement cause an adverse reaction?
It could, so you should check with your physician before taking any dietary supplement. Also, before starting any new medication (prescription or over-the-counter), tell your doctor about the dietary supplements you are taking. Supplements can interfere with the proper metabolization of medication, and vice versa.
3. Is it possible that the nutritional deficiency I am seeking to address by taking supplements is a symptom of an underlying medical problem that needs to be diagnosed and treated?
Yes! If you have a nutritional deficiency combined with chronic pain, fatigue or depression, you may have an underlying medical disorder. Make sure to talk with a physician who has successfully treated nutritional deficiencies caused by food intolerances or allergies, such as leaky gut syndrome, or autoimmune diseases such as celiac disease, as these can interfere with your body’s ability to absorb vital nutrients. If an undiagnosed medical problem is causing a nutritional deficiency, it should be addressed before, or in conjunction with, taking supplements.
Take control of your health. This includes having a discussion with your physician about any supplements you are taking or considering taking. Don’t be tempted by marketing strategies and fancy labeling in an industry where the manufacturers supervise themselves. As a consumer, you should consider product research, lab testing, and safety records when making your buying decisions.