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'Dangerous Supplements' Article Sparks Debate

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The September issue of Consumer Reports magazine shines a light on the “10 Surprising Dangers of Vitamins and Supplements,” and it definitely caught the attention of the dietary supplement industry.

The article defines the 10 concerns and then, for each, offers a “Protect Yourself” action to take, whether it’s consulting a doctor or referring readers to web sites that will provide additional background information.

In response, The Natural Products Association, an industry trade group representing the supplement industry, was quick to respond with two statements rebutting the cover article.

Consumer Reports makes the obvious points that nothing is risk-free and too much of anything is not necessarily a good thing,” wrote Dr. Cara Welch, Senior Vice President of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs at the NPA, in a statement. “Furthermore, it relies on disputed and inaccurate studies to draw the wrong conclusions. Consumers deserve better.”

A complete list can be found on the Consumer Reports and the NPA websites, but when lined up next to each other, the debate is heated.

Consumer Reports writes: “Some supplements are really prescription drugs.” [Daniel Fabricant, Ph.D., director of the FDA’s Division of Dietary Supplement Programs] has said that dietary supplements spiked with prescription drugs are “the largest threat” to consumer safety. … Those adulterated products can cause some of the same side effects and interactions that consumers may have been trying to avoid by choosing supplements over drugs

The NPA responds: Actually, any product with a drug in it is not a supplement at all but an illegal drug. Supplements are foods and anyone who illegally markets a drug as a supplement should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. NPA and the rest of the industry fully support swift and immediate action against those lawbreakers.

Consumer Reports writes: “Buy with caution from botánicas.” These stores, which sell traditional medicinal plants and other artifacts for physical and spiritual healing, are a valued presence in Hispanic neighborhoods in many American cities. But when Consumer Reports sent a Spanish-speaking reporter on a shopping trip to several New York-area botánicas in 2011, he came away with incomplete information and bags of mystery herbs.

The NPA responds: NPA agrees that retailers should do research before selling any products to their customers. We offer the NPA Retailer’s Staff Education Toolkit on our website; this helpful guide provides an excellent overview of the legal parameters governing supplement claims and what sales staff may and may not discuss with customers.

Consumer Reports writes: “Betcha can’t guess this commonly reported problem [print edition]” Or “Pills can irritate the esophagus [web version].” Choking as a serious symptom showed up surprisingly often in the database we analyzed of problem reports to the FDA in the last five years, with more than 900 mentions.

The NPA responds: It was surprising to see you include the dangers of choking as part of your article. Anyone can choke anytime by swallowing anything, not just supplements. I think this is just an example of fear-mongering by Consumer Reports. Pretzels, anyone?

It is not surprising for an industry representative to defend its industry, and the supplements industry is no stranger to controversy. Slate, the online magazine, also reported on the unintended side effect of supplements for athletes: often disqualification or suspension due to additives that react positively during drug tests.

With more than half of Americans taking some type of daily dietary supplement, seven in 10 cite diet as a reason to not use them You can see that here in a data page that recently ran in our SN Whole Health supplement.

It’s important for retailers to remember that most consumers aren’t as up to date on the studies and research on supplements (or the nutrient content of organic products or whatever the latest study to garner headlines is). Separating fact from fiction and being able to answer consumers’ questions in a clear manner will always be an important part of a retailer’s role.

Discuss this Blog Entry 1

Anonymous991 (not verified)
on Aug 9, 2012

I began taking supplements and vitamins after I was weaned off of all maintenance prescription drugs by a naturopathic doctor, when the side-effects (primarily chronic fatigue, a listed side-effect from all three prescriptions) became too invasive and debilitating, and my previous doctor had dismissed the side-effects. The Consumer Reports article is certainly biased, as it only uses quotatations from the FDA and not from any licensed alternative or integrative medical source, and draws some rather sketchy conclusions or concerns about supplements, in some cases stretching to make a point. It is understandable that the FDA and pharmaceutical industry would want to suppress or even eliminate the entire supplement industry, as it cuts into the pharmaceutical industry's profit line. It really is, ultimately, all about the money. Statin drug use alone, with its side-effects of memory loss or joint problems due to lessening of cholesterol in the physiology, causes far more physical problems than any supplement ever could. And although Consumer Reports does not accept any outside advertising in order to be objective, I suspect that in the case of this article, the bias entered via the medical consultants who wrote it, from their own medical training and influence or control by the FDA and pharmaceutical industry.

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