Five Things about the Wild West of Dietary Supplements

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In this '90s ad made by the supplement industry, an FDA SWAT team tries to take away Mel Gibson's Vitamin C.

1. Before they are sold on the market, dietary supplements are not reviewed or approved by the FDA.

However, 54 percent of surveyed consumers believe that the government approves vitamin and mineral supplements before they are marketed (according to the 2014 Health and Diet Survey sponsored by the FDA).

2. There are around 85,000 supplements for sale in the US today, but only 25 FDA employees regulating them.

And the FDA has little authority to investigate supplements and the companies that manufacture them until consumers get sick. “We’re relegated to playing whack a mole,” said Dr. Oliver Catlin, President of the Banned Substances Control Group. He continued, “We’re talking about an arena that has a vast number of companies. It’s very easy to start a new company, disappear if there’s a problem, reappear under a new name, and then start the same ballgame gain.”

So how did we get here?

3. Back in the 1990s, when the FDA tried to tighten regulations of supplements, more people wrote to Congress about the proposal than about the Vietnam War.

Supplement companies started a huge marketing campaign, with the message that the government is coming for your vitamins. Consumers wrote their representatives to oppose expanding the FDA’s authority of vitamins and supplements. This TV ad of an FDA SWAT team breaking into Mel Gibson’s house to snatch his Vitamin C supplement is one example from the supplement industry’s campaign. Backed by a barrage of ad campaigns, supplement lobbyists got the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act passed, which effectively stripped the FDA of its regulating powers.

4. Today, what’s advertised on the bottle is not necessarily what is inside the pill.

“You can go out and grind up grass, put it in a gelatin capsule, and then bottle it, market it, and sell it,” said Dr. David Baker, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive medicine at Stony Brook University, who is using plant DNA to investigate herbal supplements.

A few years ago, he noticed that several of his patients were taking black cohosh supplements to help with menopause, and he wanted to see how much of the plant was in the pills. Dr. Baker found that, among the dozens of black cohosh supplements he sampled, 25 percent had zero trace of the plant. Imagine if 25 percent of orange juice on the market had no oranges. Though that would never happen, it’s fair to say that consumers would be pretty unhappy about it.

5. The dosages for some of the most commonly used supplements are much greater than the FDA’s daily recommended values.

The daily recommended value of Vitamin B-12 (6 micrograms) equals one bowl of fortified cereal. However, a typical 500 mcg supplement dosage is 8,333% times the recommended value — that’s 83 bowls of cereal! 

A 1000 mg Vitamin C supplement is 1,667% of the recommended value (60 mg). In other words, that's like eating 14 oranges in one sitting (according to this report by FRONTLINE).

The steady rise of dietary supplement use prompted the editors at the Annals of Internal Medicine to write, “Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements.” They cited studies on tens of thousands of people finding no benefits from supplement use, and even possible harm. The message was simple: “Most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death, their use is not justified, and they should be avoided.”