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Supplements - Buyer Beware (Part 1 of 2)

In the 19th century people who were sick didn't automatically go to a doctor. Many rural communities didn't have a medical practitioner. They would go to the general store and buy medicines that were "guaranteed to cure all that ails you". Elixirs with names like "Kickapoo Indian Oil" that claimed to cure cancer, diabetes and as an added bonus "cleansed the bowels."

To add legitimacy, manufacturers would patent their products to protect against counterfeiters. However, most manufacturers didn't seek patents on the medicine IN the bottle but rather the shape OF the bottle or information on the label. Manufacturers didn't want to protect the ingredients because most were simply alcohol, opium, morphine, caffeine or cocaine.

The medicines often appeared to work. In reality most simply kept you drugged up so you wouldn't feel pain.

Everything changed in 1905 when author Upton Sinclair released his book The Jungle. It became an international bestseller and raised the public's concern about the quality and integrity of food products to such a level, that within a year Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

 

Today if you shop for supplements you face many of the same issues that confronted consumers in 1905. Supplements have replaced patent medicines, with labels screaming out promises to "enhance", "cure" or "prevent" all your ills.

Picture of Ginkgo Biloba Bottle Ginkgo Biloba is marketed for "memory loss associated with aging" when there is no sound scientific evidence to support the use of ginkgo to enhance concentration or improve memory.

Picture of Pedi-Active A.D.D. Bottle Pedi-Active A.D.D. you might assume would be used to treat kids with attention deficit disorder (ADD). Nope. You have to read the rest of the label (in smaller print) that says A.D.D. stands for "Advanced Dietary Delivery System".

Picture of Chromium Picolinate Bottle Chromium Picolinate is sold with the phrase, "Lowering body fat and increasing lean body mass..." when in fact, four reputable studies all showed it had no benefit whatsoever.

By now you're thinking to yourself, "But I thought the government protected me! They can't sell products that make false claims!"

They can and do.

Let's clarify what the government's role is. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) looks at three categories of claims that can be used on food or dietary supplement labels.

Health Claims - Describe a relationship between a food substance and a disease or health-related condition.

Structure Function Claims - These supplements can claim a benefit related to a nutrient deficiency disease (like vitamin C and scurvy), as long as the statement also tells how widespread such a disease is in the United States.

Nutrient Content Claims - These claims describe the level of a nutrient or dietary substance in the product, using terms such as "good source," "high," or "free."

This is what the government does NOT do.

  • They do NOT test supplements to prove they actually work. You are supposed to trust the manufacturer's word that whatever they say their product does is true.

  • They do NOT test supplements to make sure they contain the ingredients listed on the label. They leave it up to the manufacturers to be honest about what goes into each bottle.

  • They do NOT test supplements for safety. Once again it's the manufacturer's responsibility to make sure the product you're buying won't harm you.

There are ways to protect yourself.

  1. Start by researching your supplements. Look them up on reputable websites such as FDA.gov, WebMD.com or Click Here to visit the SUPPLEMENTS section of my website.

  2. Look for studies conducted by independent organizations, carried out over 2 to 3 years, on large groups of people (at least 100 or more subjects). Make sure that the conditions the supplements were used in match your situation.

Next issue I'll tell you about companies that independently verify the contents of supplements, and the twelve supplements that Consumer Reports has said are, "too dangerous to be on the market."

Part 1 2

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10/28/2004