Nancy M. Ouhib, MBA, RD, LD
DIETARY SUPPLEMENTS you have heard about them. Maybe you have used them. At some point, you may have recommended them to others. People say use echinacea to prevent colds, gingko to improve memory, and flaxseed to lower cholesterol. The list goes on and on.
The question is: how much do we really know about dietary supplements? Some can be beneficial to your health. But taking supplements can also involve serious health risks.
Dietary supplements include herbals, botanicals, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and enzymes. While some dietary supplements are fairly well understood, others need further study. Unlike drugs, supplements are not intended to treat, diagnose, prevent or cure diseases. Supplements should NOT make claims, such as "reduces arthritic pain" or "treats heart disease." Claims like these can only legitimately be made for drugs, not supplements.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve supplements for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed. If the dietary supplement contains a new ingredient, the FDA, prior to marketing, for safety only, but not effectiveness, will review that ingredient.
Review does not mean approval. The manufacturers of dietary supplements are responsible for making sure their products are safe before they go to market. Manufacturers are required to produce dietary supplements to minimum quality standards and ensure that they do not contain contaminants or impurities, and that they are accurately labeled.
Manufacturers are also required to report all serious dietary supplement-related adverse events or illnesses to the FDA, which can take the supplements off the market, if found to be unsafe, adulterated, or if the claims made are false and misleading.
Report a serious problem from the use of any dietary supplement to the FDA's MedWatch Program at 800-332-1088. It wants to know when the use of a dietary supplement causes a serious reaction or illness. FDA regulations provide assurance that dietary supplements meet certain quality standards. If not, it can remove dangerous products from the market.
Buyer beware. Many supplements contain active ingredients producing strong effects in the body, posing unexpected risks. Taking a combination of dietary supplements or using them with prescribed medications could lead to harmful, even life-threatening results.
To learn more about the supplement you want to take, check with the manufacturer about information to support the claims of the product, the safety of ingredients, and reports of adverse effects from consumers using the product
Although the benefits of some dietary supplements have been documented, the claims of others may be unproven. If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
Be a savvy supplement user:
Watch out for false statements and claims
Be aware that the term natural does not mean safe
Do not assume that, even if a product may not help you, at least it will not hurt you
When searching for supplements on the web, use the sites of respected organizations
See "health fraud scams" for information on fraudulent dietary supplements
See the FDA Tainted Supplements page for potentially hazardous supplements
Consider safety first. Speak with a medical doctor or registered dietitian before taking a dietary supplement. Each person can assist you in making a reliable, objective decision about achieving the proper balance between the food and nutrients you personally need. Remember also - dietary supplements are never a substitute for a nutritionally adequate and well-balanced diet.