With more and more people taking dietary supplements daily, it is easy to see why the supplements industry continues to be on an upward trajectory. The supplements category includes vitamins, herbal products and other pills that claim to have specific health benefits.
The problem with supplements, however, is that they are too loosely regulated. The only time that authorities, particularly the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA), can intervene and have a product removed from shelves is when there are confirmed reports of the product harming consumers.
Unlike prescription drugs which always go through rounds and rounds of rigorous testing before they reach the pharmacies, the system currently gives manufacturers of supplements the sole discretion to follow the guidelines set by the FDA. This has raised concerns of experts who argue that the regulations need to be tightened.
One challenge that regulators face is the classification of supplements as food and not drugs. There are arguments to counter this. The truth is that when you eat an apple, you know you are eating an apple. But can you say the same about using a supplement?
Last year the Department of Justice had to step in against a Texas-based supplements company. In the indictment, USPlabs was found to have made their products using a China-made synthetic stimulant, but marketed the supplements as ones made from plant extracts. The products were linked to liver toxicity in the same indictment.
Challenges of supplements industry regulation
The concern is that many adverse effects of supplements are either underreported or just don’t reach the FDA. In fact, poison control centers receive more complaints concerning supplements than the FDA according to statistics.
Lack of resources
The supplements industry has between 80,000 and 90,000 products in the market. Finding the resources to keep up with such a big industry is a big challenge.
Lack of information
The FDA has found it difficult to take action because most reported cases lack information. Linking a particular health problem to a specific supplement is very difficult.
Studies show that at least 22,000 Americans are sent to emergency rooms every year due to bad reactions arising from use of supplements. The number could be even higher as a lot of cases usually go unreported.
The assumption has always been that supplements are “natural” and therefore harmless. The problem is compounded by the lax marketing standards. A supplement maker can claim that their product enhances health without any concrete proof.
In conclusion, here are some simple tips for you if you want to use a supplement:
- Do your own research instead of relying on the manufacturer’s assurance.
- Talk to your doctor first.
- Avoid multi-ingredient supplements.