Consumer Safety: An Official Guide to Dietary Supplements

A myriad of dietary supplements are on the market. Some provide real health benefits, but others have either no effect whatsoever, or actually have adverse effects, especially when combined with certain prescription medications. This article and its numerous links on information including supplement regulation, safety, and other advice may be very helpful in weeding through the information on dietary supplements.

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Dietary Supplement Basics

Dietary Supplements are defined as any product meant for ingestion or use in addition to daily intake of food, and is comprised of one or more of the following: vitamins, minerals, amino acids, botanicals, herbs, and other substances. These may be sold at food and/or drug stores, health food stores, national chain discount retailers, on-line, and by mail. Supplements may take the form of a pill, tablet, capsule, powder, or liquid; some are even in tea form.

For example, folic acid supplements have been shown to reduce adverse outcomes of high-risk pregnancies. Contrary to many claims concerning vitamin D and calcium supplements, there has been no visible evidence toward an increase in bone strength or in decreasing the potential for fractures. Glucosamine has become popular for advancing joint health, and is often used to alleviate arthritis pain. Some experts say when glucosamine is combined with chondroitin, it has helped some arthritis sufferers, particularly with pain of the knee. But other experts say the evidence is inconclusive and more research is needed.

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Supplement Use and Information

Americans spend about $17 billion every year on dietary supplements. That’s a four-fold increase since 1994.

In 1990, less than 35 percent of the U.S. population used some form of complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs), which encompasses herbal preparations and dietary supplements. In 1997, that figure rose to 42 percent. Last year, more than 47 percent of men and nearly 60 percent of women in the U.S. used some kind of dietary supplement for the purpose of improving health, and the numbers are expected to rise.

Supplement Health Claims

In 1994, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) became law. This act oversees the sale of dietary supplements, and eliminated the requirement for supplement manufacturers to receive FDA approval on safety and effectiveness of their products before marketing them. Supplement makers must affirm that their products are safe, and any claims must be substantiated by evidence that is not misleading, and not false – anymore.

There are three types of claims dietary supplements may legally make under DSHEA:

Health claim – this is profession of a correlation between a food, a component of food, or supplement ingredient, and lowering the risk of disease or another type of health issue or condition.

Nutrient Content – using “low,” “high,” and “free,” for example, or a comparison of the level of a nutrient in one food with the level of that same nutrient in another.

Structure/Function – when a nutrient or ingredient affects normal human function (“calcium builds healthy, strong bones”).

Federal Regulation of Supplements

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the arm of the federal government that among other duties, oversees the safety of dietary supplements. The regulations governing dietary supplements are much less strict than those for prescription or over-the-counter drugs.

Supplement packaging must state that the product is not meant to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Manufacturers may state that a dietary supplement addresses deficiency of a certain nutrient(s), supports health, or is related to a particular bodily function, such as immunity. When research in support of a claim does not exist, all such claims must be followed by a printed acknowledgment that FDA has not evaluated that statement. The word “Supplement” must appear on the label of all individual product containers. Nutritional information, which includes all of the supplement’s ingredients (inert or not), also must be listed.

Advice for Consumers

There are unbiased resources available with credible information on dietary supplements. For a particular product, health care providers may be able to access helpful information, or at least the most current medical guidance concerning benefits and risks.

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), National Institutes of Health (NIH), Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS), and other federal agencies offer free publications, clearinghouses, and information on-line.

Supplement Safety

According to Today’s Dietitian magazine, one in every four dietary supplements either don’t contain the ingredients printed on the label, contains additional ingredients that can cause serious health problems, or is comprised of other ingredients that are virtually unknown.

Before taking any dietary supplement, read the label and research the product and its ingredients. Talk to health care providers and have a list of other medications being taken. If determined to be acceptable, stay attuned to any possible side effects. In the event of a concerning issue, stop taking the supplement immediately and contact a physician.

Be mindful that “natural” does not have a clear-cut definition regarding dietary supplements, and may not necessarily be safe.

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