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Can the government ensure the safety of nutritional supplements?

Grant Cooper, MD
Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation
When the federal government identifies nutritional supplement companies making inappropriate, dangerous, deceptive, or unsubstantiated claims, it can take action against them. However, government oversight, even of misleading and disreputable sellers, remains limited because of the enormous amount of money needed (several billion dollars annually) and the large number of small companies involved. The lack of precision of descriptive terms, which allows disreputable businesses to mislead and misguide the public without doing anything "illegal," makes it even more difficult for the government to maintain control. Because the terms commonly used for advertising supplements have no legal definition, a company can advertise that its formula uses a "standardized" process that has been "verified," or even "certified," without these terms meaning anything of substance.
The Arthritis Handbook: Improve Your Health and Manage the Pain of Osteoarthritis (A DiaMedica Guide to Optimum Wellness)

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The Arthritis Handbook: Improve Your Health and Manage the Pain of Osteoarthritis (A DiaMedica Guide to Optimum Wellness)

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The government cannot guarantee that a nutritional supplement is harmless, though it can take one off the market if it harms people. Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), supplement makers don't have to prove that a product is safe or effective, as pharmaceutical companies must do for a drug.

Over the years, there have been cases in which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has found problems with supplements. Some have been contaminated with dangerous metals, and others have contained strong prescription drugs.

To increase the odds that the supplements you take are safe, the American Cancer Society recommends steering clear of ones with certain danger signs. These include products that:
  • claim to work like prescription drugs
  • claim to help you lose weight. (Some of these contain sibutramine --  Meridia -- a drug banned in the U.S. because of safety concerns.)
  • have labels written entirely in a foreign language
  • are promoted via email

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.