Supplements are an unnecessary risk

Jacob Schmidt

This February, New York’s attorney general sent cease-and-desist letters to Wal-Mart, Target, Walgreens and GNC for selling sham herbal supplements. Of the supplements tested by the Attorney General, 78 percent did not even contain the ingredients on the label. Instead, pills contained powdered rice and house plants.

In a $60 billion industry, such fraud is not only unethical but also life-threatening. Some of the supplements the attorney general tested, which were labelled as gluten free, contained wheat. Other supplements that claimed to be purely plant-based contained legumes like peanuts and soy, which can cause extreme allergic reactions. None of these hidden allergens were mentioned on the label.

This was not the first time the herbal supplement industry has been told to clean up its act. As detailed in the cease-and-desist letters, the University of Guelph found similar results in its testing of herbal supplements like Ginkgo biloba and St. John’s wort only a year before.

Since 1994, federal law has condoned such supplement shams. The law, ironically named the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, states that supplements need not undergo the same rigorous scrutiny and approval process required of prescription medications. Guised as a step towards increased consumer safety, the act allows manufacturers to sell untested supplements with unverified health claims.

“There is no guarantee the supplement will contain the vitamin or mineral at the labeled amount. Additionally, the companies do not have to substantiate health claims related to the respective supplements,” said Dr. Laura Lashinger of UT’s Department of Nutritional Sciences.

Thankfully, hope exists for supplement fans in the United States Pharmacopeia, a nonprofit regulatory committee dedicated to improving the quality and purity of ingredients and medicines not directly regulated by the FDA.

But even if every supplement were adequately tested and approved, we might still be wasting our time and money on them. Drew Hays, a dietician and UT faculty member also in the Department of Nutritional Sciences, said, “the typical American diet is more than sufficient to avoid any micro or macronutrient deficiencies. A well-balanced diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein (plant or animal) will eliminate the need for any additional dietary supplements in most healthy adults.”

So, if supplements are neither guaranteed to be safe nor effective, why are global industry revenues projected to top $175 billion by 2020?

The likely culprit is consumer misinformation. The FDA has forgone supplement regulation, leaving consumers to research and evaluate supplements on their own. The miraculous health benefits promised by many a brand of fish oil or valerian root can make us feel insecure enough about our current nutrition to drop $85 on a small bottle of snake oil.

For the die-hard supplement users out there, this might be a tough pill to swallow. But for the majority of us, we should find solace in the fact that a healthy diet and exercise need no supplementation.

Schmidt is a physics sophomore from Austin. Follow him on Twitter @heyjakers.