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While taking a supplement can be an easy way to get the nutrition you need, some unsettling studies have surfaced recently that question the safety and quality of supplements. With government data finding more than half of Americans take some form of dietary supplement, it’s time we take a closer look at this issue.
Safety and quality concerns surrounding supplements
Despite being one of the fastest-growing industries in world – the Nutritional Business Journal says it will go from $32 billion in revenue in 2012 to more than $60 billion in 2021 – nutritional supplements are largely unregulated in the U.S.
Manufacturers are responsible for ensuring their products are safe and are produced using good manufacturing practices. While the Food and Drug Administration can evaluate safety once a supplement is on the market, there is no preapproval process or review for these substances prior to their sale.
As a result, some concerning studies have been published that show herbal supplements are not all they claim to be.
In a study published in the October 2013 issue of the journal BMC Medicine, Canadian researchers analyzed 44 herbal supplements sold at Canadian and U.S. retailers. Of those, one-third did not contain any of the advertised ingredients and many others contained fillers such as rice, soybean and wheat.
Three articles published in the December 2013 edition of the Annals of Internal Medicine found supplements did not demonstrate any beneficial effect on mortality, cardiovascular disease or cancer. In addition, the use of supplements was not shown to improve cognitive function.
This month, the FDA issued a consumer warning that some supplements are being marketed as a treatment or cure for concussions or traumatic brain injuries. However, there is no scientific backing for these claims, and the high levels of omega-3 fatty acids found in some brands could lead to an increased risk of bleeding or cause problems controlling blood sugar levels.
How to protect yourself
So the question becomes: how do you protect yourself?
You could swear off supplements completely, but I’m not sure that’s the answer. After all, the typical American diet is often lacking in essential vitamins and minerals, and supplements can be a convenient way to help fill in those nutritional gaps.
Rather than saying no to all supplements, be sure you thoroughly do your homework first. To start, if you are taking any prescription medications, you’ll want to talk to your doctor about potential interactions. For example, St. John’s Wort has been shown to reduce the effectiveness of some prescribed drugs.
Then, I would be wary of any supplement that promises amazing results, whether it is weight loss or improved memory. Remember, none of these claims need to be backed up by a third party. However, manufacturers making specific health claims about a supplement must have data to support their claims. Be sure to look up that data to see how solid it is before spending your hard-earned cash.
Finally, look for independent verification of a product’s quality and safety. ConsumerLab.com is a paid service that provides independent research of supplements. The website not only gives a wealth of background information on supplements, it also tests individual products and looks for whether they contain the promised ingredients, disintegrate properly or contain excess levels of lead.
However, you don’t have to pay to get third-party verification of a company’s claims. Look for supplements that have a USP label. These supplements have been submitted for voluntary testing and auditing by the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention. You can feel more confident supplements bearing this label are going to deliver the ingredients they promise and not contain harmful levels of contaminants.
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