Science Times Wrap-up (2.3.15)

A lot of good stories in today’s Science Times. But there’s one in particular you should know.

As Anahad O’Connor reports, the New York Attorney General’s office sent out cease-and-desist letters to Walmart, Target, GNC, and Walgreens yesterday, demanding the removal of several “nutritional supplements” from their shelves because they are either fraudulent or because they contain unlisted ingredients that can cause allergic reactions. What do they mean by fraudulent? It it turns out some of these herbal supplements didn’t even test positive for the specific plant advertised on the label. In fact, only half of them actually tested positive for the presence of plant DNA in the first place! So how is it possible that these companies can get away with selling what are essentially “blanks” so easily?

To answer this question, let’s look at the FDA’s rules on nutritional supplements. Up until 1994, dietary supplements were subjected to the same regulations as other foods were. However, a bill was signed into law that year, creating the separate category of “dietary supplements”, covering vitamins and minerals, herbs, amino acids, etc.

So what exactly do you have to tell the FDA if you want to start selling a nutritional supplement? Well, if your supplement contains ingredients that were sold before 1994 law, well then, you don’t have to report anything. And who is in charge of ensuring that the nutritional supplements on the market are safe and effective at the dose given? The manufacturer is. Okay, but don’t they have to provide evidence to the FDA that their supplement actually does what they claim? Nope. Does the FDA at least impose limits on the maximum dose of a supplement that a manufacturer can sell safely? Nope, as long as the manufacturer ensures that the supplement is safe, they can make it at whatever dose they want. Come on, the FDA must at the very least do routine testing to ensure the contents match the description, right? Once again, nope. That job is also the responsibility of the manufacturer.

The truth is, there is only one way for the FDA to take a dietary supplement off the shelf. That is to do what the NY Attorney General did, prove that a dietary supplement is not “safe”. And even then, the FDA is only allowed to do so after the supplement is out on the market.

Whew, that was eye-opening. And now that I’ve thoroughly scared you, I should probably mention that the FDA does provide resources to help individuals navigate through what’s safe and what’s not. Of course, not all supplements are bad for you, some people do really need calcium supplements or vitamin D supplements or what-not, but when it comes to other things like herbal remedies, you very much take them at your own risk.

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