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Consumer Protection Tips For Purchasing Dietary Supplements


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Dietary supplements are some of the hottest selling items available today. More than half of the United States adult population use dietary supplements.

The 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act set up a new framework for FDA regulation of dietary supplements as well as setting up an office in the National Institutes of Health to coordinate research. The law requires manufacturers to provide a product label detailing the ingredients.

The FDA's requirement for pre-market review of dietary supplements is less than that over other products it regulates such as drugs and many additives used in conventional foods. Consumers and manufacturers have the responsibility for checking the safety of dietary supplements and determining the truthfulness of label claims.

How can you identify a supplement?

  • The words “dietary supplement" will be on product labels
  • A “Supplement Facts" panel will also be on product labels of most dietary supplements

    What are the common forms?

  • Tablets, capsules, powders, soft gels, gel caps and liquids

    Where can you purchase?

  • Grocery stores, drug and national discount chain stores, mail-order catalogs, TV programs, the internet and direct sales

    What role does the FDA play?

  • The FDA oversees safety, manufacturing and production information, such as claims, in a product's labeling, package inserts, and accompanying information.

    The one thing dietary supplements are not is “drugs. " Here is where the major difference lies between dietary supplements and drugs. Drugs must undergo clinical studies to determine effectiveness, safety, possible interactions with other substances, and appropriate dosages. The FDA must review the data and authorize the drugs’ use before they go onto the market. The FDA does not authorize or test dietary supplements.

    Fraudulent products are products that don't do what they say; they can or don't contain ingredients they say they contain, and can be a waste of consumers’ money. They may also cause physical harm.

    Identifying Fraudulent Products

    Possible indicators of fraud may include:

  • Claims that the product is a secret cure and the use of terms such as “breakthrough, " “magical, " “miracle cure, " and “new discovery" should be warning signs that the product could be a fraudulent product.
  • “Pseudo medical" jargon, such as “detoxify, " “purify" and “energize" to describe a product's effects are claims that are vague and hard to measure. Such claims make it easier for success to be claimed even though success has not actually been accomplished.
  • Beware of claims that say the product can cure a wide range of unrelated diseases. Fact is there is no product that can accomplish this.
  • Be on the look out for claims that the product is backed by scientific studies without providing a list of references or an inadequate list. A list of references may be provided, but the citations cannot be traced, or the studies are out-of-date, irrelevant, or poorly designed.
  • A supplement having claims that there are only benefits and “no side effects. "
  • Statements that the medical profession, drug companies, and the government are hiding information about a particular treatment. This is an illogical statement because it would not make sense for large numbers of people such as the government, drug companies and the medical profession to withhold information about potential medical therapies when they or their families and friends might benefit from.

    Economic Fraud

    Economic fraud is when the manufacturer substitutes part or all of a product with an inferior, cheaper ingredient and then passes the fake product as the real thing at a lower cost. Consumers should avoid products sold for considerably less money than competing brands. It the product is too cheap, it is probably not what it is supposed to be.

    Quality Control

    The growing market for dietary supplements in a less restrictive regulatory environment creates potential for them to be prone to quality-control problems.

    Consumer protection for quality control includes:

  • Looking for ingredients in products with the U. S. P. notation, which indicates the manufacturer followed standards established by the U. S. Pharmacopoeia
  • Knowing that the label term “natural" does not guarantee the product is safe. Remind yourself of “poisonous mushrooms. " They are natural, however, poisonous and harmful.
  • Watch for nationally known food and drug manufacturers. They more likely have made products under tight controls because they already have in place manufacturing standards for their other products.
  • When in doubt, write to the supplement manufacturer for more information. Ask the company about conditions under which its products are made.

    If you use dietary supplements be sure to always read product labels, follow the directions, and be aware of all warnings. If you suffer a serious harmful effect or illness that may be related to the supplement, you should call a doctor or other health-care provider. He or she can report the problem to FDA MedWatch. Their number is 1-800-FDA-1088 or goes directly to the web site of the FDA MedWatch and makes the report. Patient names are kept confidential. You can also follow the same procedure for reporting an adverse reaction. To file a report, a consumer will be asked to provide:

  • Name, address, and telephone number of the person who became ill
  • Name and address of the doctor or hospital providing medical treatment
  • Description of the problem
  • Name of the product and store where it was purchased

    Consumers should always report the problem to the manufacturer or distributor of the product. You can find this information listed on the product's label.

    For more sources for additional information on dietary supplements follow the link in the resource box of this article.

    Source: Kurtzweil P. An FDA guide to dietary supplements. . FDA Consumer [serial online]. September 1998;32(5):28. Available from: Health Source - Consumer Edition, Ipswich, MA. Accessed July 24, 2008.

    Written by: Connie Limon Learn more about dietary supplements at

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