Recently I had my annual check-up, including a review of bloodwork. As you might suspect, I am stunningly healthy. I did find out that my vitamin D level is low. Probably because I slather on sunscreen so faithfully. You have seen my whiteness, yes?
Anyway, my doctor recommended I take a calcium and D3 supplement in addition to the allergy medication, multi-vitamin, and fish oil I already take. Though it’s better to get the bulk of your nutrients through food, supplements can bridge small gaps in your diet quite nicely. But with so many supplements to choose from, how do you know if the brands and types you use are safe and effective?
Thirty eight percent of the population uses some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), including supplements. In 2001, $18 billion was spent on vitamins, minerals, and herbs. But did you know supplements are monitored more like food than medication? In fact, the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) dictates that supplements can’t share shelf-space with over-the-counter medications. A few other important points about the DSHEA:
- do not need to register to get FDA approval
- are responsible for ensuring their product is safe
- must self-police their product labeling so it is truthful and not misleading
- intervenes only if a product causes problems once ON THE MARKET. Understand, this means the FDA will only step in and pull a product if enough people suffer enough adverse reactions . . . like death.
- monitors product labeling, claims, package inserts, and accompanying literature
Supplement labels are required to include certain information.
Buried in the fine print, one of the most important parts of this label is the structure-function claim:
When you need to perform your best, take ginseng.
This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
Many of us take supplements to manage or improve our health and vitality, and often view vitamins, minerals, and energy-boosters as a form of medication. The FDA does not. However, in 2007, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the FDA compiled regulations in the form of Good Manufacturing Processes (GMP), which are designed to ensure stringent record-keeping, quality control, product-testing, quality ingredients and production practices, and increased inspection.
Because the FDA has limited resources, several companies are federally recognized to test supplement ingredients and conduct lab inspections. The following seals of approval indicate supplements have been more closely evaluated:
Examples: Nature’s Way, Country Life, Twin
Examples: Good Neighbor Pharmacy, Sundown
Example: Nature Made
Example: GNC Nutritional Supplements
In addition to checking labels for these recognized seals of approval, the FDA offers these tips for savvy supplement consumers:
- consider your total diet when adding supplements
- check with your medical provider before taking supplements: some supplements interact with prescription medications, have adverse effects on certain medical conditions, or can cause complications during surgery
- inform your doctor of any supplements you are taking
- ask yourself: does it sound too good to be true?
- don’t assume “natural” means healthy
The FDA website offers a wealth of information to help consumers educate themselves about supplements, as well as resources for researching health information. Check out their Tips for the Savvy Supplement User. For more information about the FDA’s role in supplement oversight, check out their Consumer Information page. Finally, the Dietary Supplement Q & A page, has the answers to commonly asked supplement questions.
So, any surprises here? I had a vague understanding that the supplement industry didn’t have much oversight or regulation, but learning the specifics at the 2012 Fitness and Health Bloggers Conference was eye-opening. Much of this information came from a wonderful presentation by Monika Nuffer, PharmD, Clinical Pharmacist / Herbal Specialist, Integrative Medicine at University of Colorado Hospital, University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.