At any vitamin or health-food store, one finds an overwhelming selection of products advertising healing, restored energy, weight loss, muscle gain and other benefits. The nutritional supplement market is a large and rapidly expanding industry expected to be a $175 billion global market by 2020. Such explosive growth is certainly fueled by constant marketing campaigns striving to increase consumer awareness regarding the benefits of supplementation. With this fuel to drive awareness, important questions arise: how much of these marketed claims are true and are the nutritional products being created consistent with such claims?
The nutritional supplement industry consists of a variety of names including nutraceuticals, nutritional supplements, dietary supplements, vitamin and mineral supplements, herbal remedies, homeopathies, essential oils and others. Though known by many names, all of the preceding terms are considered “dietary supplements” by the FDA. Congress defined the term “dietary supplement” in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994. According to Congress and the FDA, a dietary supplement is a product that:
- is designed to be taken by mouth,
- is labeled as a dietary supplement,
- contains one or more dietary ingredients (vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs or other botanicals),
- is intended to supplement the diet, and/or
- is a concentrate, metabolite, constituent or extract.
However, regardless of the name, dietary supplements all share a common ground – lack of government oversight. Though the FDA does have regulations, as demonstrated above, the oversight and enforcement are left to each individual company. Once regulated the same way as food, the regulations regarding dietary supplements changed as of August 24th, 2007. The FDA’s current ruling on manufacturing practices leaves the follow through and regulation upkeep to each manufacturer. There is no other verifying or governing third-party body ensuring the regulation or enforcement of product claims, content, or dosing recommendations.
It is difficult to know how the industry is faring at self-compliance. However, it appears not very well. In early 2015, the New York attorney general’s office announced a series of test, solicited by the office, determined 79% (nearly four in every five) supplements tested at major retailers did not contain the ingredients stated on the label. Furtherly, more than a third of the tested supplements contained “contaminants” in the form of other plant materials including possible allergens and other fillers such as rice, pine, beans, and asparagus. The attorney general’s office reported that the supplements were purchased at chains such as GNC, Target, Walmart, and Walgreens.
In addition to the lack of oversight, claims based on pseudoscience are often made, including the use of anecdotal data and paid testimonials masquerading as clinical trials. Lacking actual science and legitimate regulation for claims not only impact efficacy but safety as well.
The problem: Who do you trust? How can you know which companies are truthful and legitimate? How do you know which products are effective?