Dietary supplement buyers beware


Despite their common availability in retail stores and the large size of the industry, many Minnesotans don’t realize that dietary supplements are subject to lax regulation, often resulting in dangerous products.

Consumer Reports (CR) ran a recent article discussing some of these dangers, where they identified 12 ingredients found in many readily available supplements that are linked to cardiovascular problems, blood pressure changes, liver injury, kidney failure, heart attack, and stroke. They also report that despite common “all natural” labels for supplements, some have been found to contain heavy metals, pesticides, prescription drugs, and synthetic steroids.

Unlike most drugs and medicines, supplements are regulated under the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which CR describes as “industry-friendly,” explaining, “it is difficult for the FDA to put together strong enough evidence to order products off the market. To date, it has banned only one ingredient, ephedrine alkaloids. That effort dragged on for a decade.”

Admittedly, part of the blame lies with the FDA, too, for not making full use of the limited powers it does have. Despite a 2007 amendment to DSHEA requiring supplement makers to pass on reports of serious adverse events to the FDA, those reports have rarely been made public. The lack of dietary supplement regulation is a gaping hole in our health care market. With so many health products already going through the FDA, buyers could easily assume that these products have been approved as well, when nothing could be further from the truth.

Minnesota had 154 dietary supplement stores in 2002 that did $55 million worth of business, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. If industry growth here matched that of the rest of the country, Minnesotans likely spent more than $300 million on dietary supplements last year.

It’s great that CR is stepping up and evaluating these products when the government isn’t, but unfortunately not all of the Minnesotans who bought supplements will see CR’s results, and CR doesn’t have the power to remove dangerous products from shelves as the FDA can. It’s further evidence that there are certain functions only the government can perform properly, and this kind of regulation is one of them. There’s no reason supplement companies shouldn’t be open to government regulation; if their products really do offer health benefits, then they should be happy to have them backed up by a scientific process which will weed out any competitors whose products don’t pass muster. Such approval could also lead to greater trust in and more widespread use of supplement products.

CR reports that roughly a third of supplement products have been through some level of approval, and recommends buying supplements marked “USP Verified,” meaning the company has voluntarily submitted the product for review by nonprofit U.S. Pharmacopeia. CR also points out 11 supplements worth considering. But even all of this leaves two-thirds of supplements without any scientific review process to verify benefits or safety still available on store shelves for unsuspecting consumers.

Discussing regulation in the journal Democracy, Elizabeth Warren wrote, “thanks to effective regulation, innovation in the market for physical products has led to more safety and cutting-edge features.” If applied to the dietary supplement industry, we can attain a similar result, benefiting both the industry and consumers.