Saavy Supplement Choices- How Do You Know What’s In Your Bottle?
About a year ago, I was approached by a “ruby executive” involved in a multi-level marketing scheme. I was asked to lunch by a lady– we’ll call her Sally– who had attended several of my cooking classes with her husband. It was out of the ordinary, but welcome, so we exchanged numbers.
When I arrived at the Vietnamese Restaurant, slightly off the beaten path, I was introduced to an extra diner and her trusty sidekick, a jar of arginine-based supplement. The woman had quietum plus wiry gray hair and an intense chronic stare; we’ll call her Marge.
She started right in “I couldn’t leave my couch for nine months– doctors couldn’t understand and told me I was faking; Arginine saved my life.”
“Wow!” I marveled. “Could I look at that jar for a minute?”
“It’s very popular in Japan.” Marge pulled out a stack of CDs, brochures and home-made promotional materials as I inspected the label. The product was little more than an amino acid supplement.
There are certain rules, detailed below, that to some extent limit the marketing and claims a supplement bottle or associated literature can make, but the lady also created her own promotional materials, with the company logo, claiming the Arginine product was a cure-all for cancer, diabetes and lupus, among other things.
After I was shown an overly complicated promotion scheme and roped into an hour and a half conversation about “the product” and Marge’s battle with toxic mold, I explained that I was too busy working on my degree to sell any time soon, but took all the promotional materials and immediately sent them to a consumer watchdog group. I never saw Sally again.
It’s not that the supplement was worthless- maybe it could have been useful for some purposes. The point is that arginine will not cure cancer or diabetes and there is no way for me to know if it actually contains arginine or inert filler contaminated with mercury and lead.
Much of the information to follow is provided by the FDA (governmental organization):
The law regulating dietary supplement is the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which was signed in 1994 by President Clinton.
A supplement can be defined as follows (from FDA site):
– a product (other than tobacco) that is intended to supplement the diet that bears or contains one or more of the following dietary ingredients: a vitamin, a mineral, an herb or other botanical, an amino acid, a dietary substance for use by man to supplement the diet by increasing the total daily intake, or a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, extract, or combinations of these ingredients.
– taken as a pill, capsule, tablet, or liquid form.
– not promoted as a typical food or the only item to be eaten in a meal or diet.
– labeled as a “dietary supplement.”
– includes new drugs, antibiotics, or licensed biologic previously marketed as a dietary supplement or food before approval, certification, or license as a drug
Because of DSHEA, the FDA takes a hands-off approach until someone dies, become seriously hurt, or an important lobby works against it. The FDA does not have the responsibility, time or resources to test, approve, check, validate, ensure the safety of a supplement, or otherwise protect you in any way from those who are trying to make a buck in the $8.5 billion/year supplement industry.
The FDA has approved very few compounds and foods for “health claims” that link consuming a particular ingredient with a reduction in disease risk. Sometimes even the approved claims have somewhat limited supporting research. Supplements, on the other hand, often include “function/structure claims” which do not link the food to a particular condition, but sound remarkably like health claims to a consumer. Examples include “increases stamina” and “supports immune system.” Supplement companies have to do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to put claims like this on a bottle and sell it to you for $19.95.
Additionally, the FDA is not required by law to investigate or record any reports they receive of injuries or illnesses that occur as a result of taking a particular supplement.