False health claims on dietary supplement labels isn’t exactly news. However, a recent government report on the supplement industry found that a substantial percentage of immune system and weight loss supplements on the market are illegally labeled with false claims. Some say more government oversight is required, but informed consumers can find plenty of resources to protect themselves.
The market for dietary supplements is booming. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than half of adults in the U.S. use dietary supplements in the form of multivitamins, minerals and herbs. A 2011 report in Consumer Reports noted that the supplement industry sales had grown to $27 billion a year.
No FDA approval required
Many people assume the Food and Drug Administration regulates dietary supplements the same way as drugs. But supplement manufacturers don’t have to provide the FDA with scientific evidence that their products are safe or effective. They are prohibited from making false health claims, but that doesn’t stop many of them, particularly makers of immune system and weight loss supplements.
A report released Oct. 3 by the Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general found that 20 percent of the 127 weight loss and immune system supplements investigators purchased online and in retail stores around the U.S. had labels making illegal claims to either cure or treat disease.
False health claims
Claims cited in the report ranged from outright lies (clinically-proven) to dangerous assertions (some immunity boosters claimed to help prevent or cure diabetes). Some even claimed to cure or prevent cancer or help people with HIV or AIDS, a violation of federal law that begs for a crackdown. Most companies making false claims had no information to support them. One company that did had nothing to offer but a handwritten paper written by a college student 30 years ago.
FDA oversight, or personal responsibility?
In the report, the DSHS recommended that the FDA step up oversight of the supplement industry. The agency said it would request that Congress grant it more oversight powers. Currently, when the FDA identifies unsafe, illegal dietary supplements, it’s up to the agency to prove the claims are false, not the manufacturer.
Given that Congress can’t seem to do much of anything these days, consumers should take personal responsibility for their own safety. The FDA offers tips for “savvy supplement users” on its website. There are also telltale signs on supplement labels that should raise a red flag:
- Personal testimonials by consumers or doctors claiming amazing results.
- Promotions use words like “scientific breakthrough,” miraculous cure,” “exclusive product,” “secret ingredient,” or “ancient remedy.”
- Statements that claim the product is “totally safe,” “all natural,” or has “definitely no side effects.”
- Statements that suggest that the product can treat or cure diseases.
- Statements that the product is a quick and effective “cure all.”
Buy good food, not supplements
The most important thing to keep in mind about dietary supplements is there is no substitute for a healthy lifestyle with nutritious food and regular exercise. Most people are better off spending their money on food, not supplements. Fruits and vegetables are a much better delivery system for vitamins, minerals and nutrients.