Well, unsurprisingly you are not alone. The U.S. population spent $26.9 billion dollars on dietary supplements in 2009. This number is expected to grow to $34 billion by 2013.
The industries of dietary supplements and prescription drugs are very different. Federal regulations on dietary supplements are less strict than prescription and OTC drugs. Because the supplement industry is quite lucrative, you have to keep in mind that many supplement companies may not have your best interest in mind.
If you purchase any sort of dietary supplement, you should to know a bit about how the industry is regulated in order to choose a better product.
Definition of ‘Dietary Supplement’
A product intended to supplement the diet, including vitamins, minerals, herbs, or other botanicals, amino acids, other dietary substances or combinations or extracts of any of these ingredients.
What a mouthful! As you can see, there are many things that fall under the supplement category. Federal regulations are the same for all things classified under the definition of ‘dietary supplement’.
In general, regulations on dietary supplements are less strict. According to registered dietitian Laurie Schubert in her January 2011 webinar on supplements, it is estimated that 25% of all weight loss and weight lifting supplements are contaminated.
The FDA allows dietary supplements to be marketed before they are proven safe and effective. Ultimately we are allowing the manufacturers to decide if a product is safe and effective. Crazy huh? I wish I could say it was different but its not, so that’s why we all need to be informed about supplements!
Once a supplement reaches the market, the FDA monitors product and makes periodic inspections of facilities that manufacture supplements. They have the power to remove or recall an unsafe product. The FDA can also take legal action against an unscrupulous company. I would be interested to find out how many manufacturing facilities are able to be inspected by the FDA, seeing that it is such a large industry.
Some regulation is accomplished by the FTC. The FTC is responsible for monitoring all product advertising such as labels, pictures, packaging, and internet content.
Consumers can also play a role in regulation. Anybody who has had a negative side effect from supplement use, can file a complaint with the FDA’s Medwatch program.
Some strides have been made with supplement regulation. Manufacturers are now required to follow good manufacturing practices (GMP’s) to ensure dietary supplements are processed consistently and meet quality standards. This was effective in 2008 for large manufacturers and in 2010 for small ones.
In the Hands of the Manufacturers
As you can see, there is very limited regulation of dietary supplements before they enter our bodies. Given this fact, I would say that we (our government) give a lot of freedom and responsibility to supplement manufacturers.
Supplement manufacturers are allowed to sell a product before it has been proven safe and effective. They are also allowed to put health information on the product. They can say that a supplement addresses a deficiency, supports health or is linked to a particular body function (i.e digestion, immunity) as long as there is some research to support the claim. However, these statements are not evaluated by the FDA.
Keep in mind that manufacturers also determine the serving size on the label. That is why it is important to share any supplement use with your health care provider.
Third Party Testing
There are several independent organizations that offer quality testing on supplements. They include:
- The U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP)
- NSF International
Products that pass these quality tests, are allowed to put a seal of approval on their container. The seal means that the product was properly manufactured, contains the ingredients listed on the label and does not contain harmful level of contaminants. Sounds good to me! That is why I highly recommend you try to find supplements that have gone through third party testing. Look for the seal of approval on the bottle of your supplement from one of the 3 organizations listed above.
Take Away Message
Dietary supplements are not regulated tightly. Be informed about the supplements you are taking. Discuss supplement usage with your health care provider, especially if you are on daily prescription medications. Choose supplements from well known companies that have gone through third party testing.
Quality information about supplements from the National Institutes of Health
Herbs At A Glance “ A series of fact sheets that provides basic information about specific herbs or botanicals—common names, uses, potential side effects, and resources for more information.”
I phone App from the Office of Dietary Supplements. “The Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) has developed a free mobile app for consumers called My Dietary Supplements (MyDS). MyDS gives you: 1) An easy way to keep track of the vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other products you take—right in the palm of your hand. 2) Access to science-based, reliable information on dietary supplements. 3) General information about ODS — who we are and what we do.”
National Cancer Institute Information on complementary and alternative medicine
photo by: colindunn