We Americans do love our dietary supplements. More than half of the adult population has taken them to stay healthy, lose weight, gain an edge in sports or in the bedroom, and avoid using prescription drugs. In 2009, we spent $26.7 billion on them, according to the Nutrition Business Journal, a trade publication.
What consumers might not realize, though, is that supplement manufacturers routinely, and legally, sell their products without first having to demonstrate that they are safe and effective. The Food and Drug Administration has not made full use of even the meager authority granted it by the industry-friendly 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act.
In 2008 and 2009, the FDA said, it received 1,359 reports of serious adverse effects from supplement manufacturers and 602 from consumers and health professionals. But consumers can’t easily find out which products are involved because the FDA doesn’t routinely make those reports available to the public.
Working with experts from the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, an independent research group, Consumer Reports recently identified a dozen supplement ingredients that it thinks consumers should avoid because they’ve been linked by clinical research or case reports to serious adverse events. The FDA has warned about the safety of at least eight of them, some as long ago as 1993. Other factors were also evaluated, including evidence of effectiveness for their purported uses, and the extent to which the ingredients are readily available, either alone or in combination products.
Consumer Reports also compiled a list of 11 supplements that people might want to consider because they have been shown to likely be safe for most people, and because they are possibly or probably effective in appropriate doses for certain conditions.
What you can do
Consult your doctor or pharmacist. Even helpful products can be harmful in some situations, such as when you’re pregnant or nursing, have a chronic disease or are about to have elective surgery. And some supplements might be fine on their own but interact with certain prescription drugs.
Beware of certain categories. Supplements for weight loss, sexual enhancement and bodybuilding have been problematic, the FDA said, because some contain steroids and prescription drugs.
Look for the “USP Verified” mark. It indicates that the supplement manufacturer has voluntarily asked U.S. Pharmacopeia, a trusted nonprofit, standards-setting authority, to verify the quality, purity and potency of its raw ingredients or finished products. USP maintains a list of verified products at http://www.uspverified.org.
Don’t assume more is better. It’s possible to overdose even on beneficial vitamins and minerals.
Report problems. Let your doctor know if you experience any symptoms after you start taking a supplement. And if you end up with a serious side effect, ask your doctor or pharmacist to report it to the FDA, or do it yourself at http://www.fda.gov/medwatch or by calling 800-332-1088.
Research in the right places. Be skeptical about claims made for supplements in ads, on TV and by sales staff. If a claim sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Instead, try these sources:
— The National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements, http://www.ods.od.nih.gov.
— The FDA, for alerts, advisories and other actions, http://www.fda.gov/food/dietarysupplements.
— Consumer Reports Health, http://www.ConsumerReportsHealth.org, where, for an annual subscription fee to the site, you can search for information about dietary supplements and other natural health products by type, brand or ingredient. You can also view ratings of product effectiveness for various conditions and check interactions between those supplements and certain drugs.