Fish Oil or Snake Oil? The Problem with Supplements

Supplement manufacturers don’t have to vouch for the claims on their labels or provide test results for their products. That’s a red flag.

Dietary supplements are big business in the United States. With different bottles claiming to treat everything from depression to weight loss, the industry racked up an estimated $36.7 billion in sales in 2014 alone, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Millions of Americans swear to the benefits of taking a vitamin or herbal supplement. But the fact is, supplement manufacturers don’t have to vouch for the claims on their labels. Nor do they have to go through the kind of rigorous testing that the FDA requires for prescription drugs.

Whare Are the Regulations?

Take, for example, the vitamin D supplement my doctor asked me to start taking after lab work showed I had lower than normal levels of vitamin D in my bloodstream. Big bold words on the back of the label read: “VITAMIN D HELPS SUPPORT TEETH, BONE, AND IMMUNE HEALTH.”

Sounds convincing, right? I was convinced, until I noticed the small cross symbol at the end of that sentence and looked at the bottom of the label. There I found this: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”

Talk about a disclaimer! Too many, if not most, of the millions of people who buy supplements on a regular basis have the impression that the product has been tested and regulated by a government agency, and therein lies the problem.

Although prescription drugs are very tightly regulated and must go through a long and expensive approval process, the FDA requires no similar practice for dietary supplements. The supplement industry itself is self-policed as manufacturers are responsible for testing their products and ensuring that any medical claims are supported by evidence.

The FDA typically only gets involved with supplements if there are consumer complaints, a manufacturing issue with a product or if a product is seen as potentially harmful to the public. This has to change.

‘Paying a million-dollar fine imposed by regulators doesn’t stop them from making claims that are not true. It’s just part of the cost of doing business.’

—Julie Nepveu, a senior attorney with AARP Foundation Litigation

“Companies get away with selling billions of dollars’ worth of supplements that don’t live up to their advertising claims, and may be dangerous,” Julie Nepveu, a senior attorney with AARP Foundation Litigation, said in a recent report about supplements from that organization. “Paying a million-dollar fine imposed by regulators doesn’t stop them from making claims that are not true. It’s just part of the cost of doing business.”

At MedShadow, we want you to be the boss of the medicines you take, and that includes supplements. While some supplements may well offer benefits, others are akin to what a snake oil salesman would promise. Ask yourself some questions: Is the product safe? Are its claims backed up by scientific evidence? What are the potential side effects? How might a supplement interact with other drugs you are taking?

While this requires doing some homework, you’ll notice we’ve started doing more coverage on dietary supplements.

So, what can be done to help consumers out with dietary supplements? For starters, Congress can reform the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, passed in 1994, which defined dietary supplements as a category of food, not drugs. As opposed to prescription medications, supplements are considered safe until proven otherwise. This means that the FDA is likely to take action only after they cause harm. Supplements should be treated like drugs and go through rigorous testing so problems are identified before a product hits the market.

In the meantime, think twice before believing a claim on the label of a supplement. A little bit of skepticism and research can go a long way in helping you lead a healthier life.

Jonathan Block

Jonathan Block is a freelance writer and former MedShadow content editor. He has been an editor and writer for multiple pharmaceutical, health and medical publications, including BioCentury, The Pink Sheet, Modern Healthcare, Health Plan Week and Psychiatry Advisor. He holds a BA from Tufts University and is earning an MPH with a focus on health policy from the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy.

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