Vitamins, herbal remedies, weight-loss pills, hormone boosters – they all fall under the category of supplements. Which means, when it comes to oversight and regulation, they’re in a black hole.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates foods and drugs and monitors for compliance. Supplements, however, don’t fit neatly into either the food or drug category. As such, supplements don’t come with overdose or side effect warnings as is the case with prescription and over the counter medicines. The FDA requires food manufacturers list all the ingredients contained within, allergen warnings and a government mandated nutrition label on the package. Food and drug manufacturers are restricted from making unsubstantiated health claims and audited to ensure the ingredients listed on the package properly reflect what the product contains.
Supplements do have some restrictions on marketing claims and must post a full ingredient list. But, that’s pretty much where the regulations end. Oversight is relegated to occasional testing. When testing has been done, the results are atrocious and, in some cases, indicate how dangerous an under-regulated supplement industry can be.
A report published by the FDA last week showed over 700 supplement warnings were issued over the last decade. The report claims the warnings were issued because products were found to contain unauthorized and, sometimes, potentially dangerous drugs. What’s more, the drugs were not listed in the ingredient list in 98% of the cases. Nearly all of the supplements cited fell into weight-loss, sexual enhancement or muscle-building categories.
Although the latest report didn’t include violations in the vitamin, mineral or herb categories, this should not be perceived as an all-clear on these types of supplements. It is possible to consume toxic levels of certain vitamins, minerals and herbs and the average consumer is not equipped to know the safe amounts of supplement consumption or how much they are already ingesting in the foods they eat. Couple that with the fact that studies have shown consuming vitamins and minerals in supplement form does not have the same health benefits as consuming nutrients in the whole foods that contain them, the risks typically aren’t worth the possible meager benefits.
It remains true that health doesn’t come in a pill and the formula for fitness is to consume a wide variety of whole foods in proper portions, live an active lifestyle and get regular, restful sleep. There are a few common vitamin deficiencies in certain populations in the United States. A primary care physician is the best person to test for that and prescribe a specific supplement dosage, if necessary. Beyond that, as the latest FDA report proves, it’s best to stay clear of the supplement aisle.