Four national retailers were blasted by the New York state attorney general’s office with demands to remove their popular store bands of dietary supplements from their shelves. Tests were run and the results showed that roughly four out of five products contained none of the herbs listed on the labels. Some contained little more than fillers like rice, powdered garlic, and ingredients that could be dangerous to people with allergies.
Wal-Mart, GNC, Target and Walgreens were accused of selling herbal supplements that did not contain herbs. That constitutes fraud. Unlike prescription drugs, the government does not regulate the safety and sale of supplements such as Ginkgo Biloba, St. John’s Wort, Ginseng, Echinacea, and others, because they are classified as food products, not medicines. Not that I have total faith in the FDA’s regulation of pharmaceutical drugs—I don’t, especially regarding generic medications imported from India and other countries.
Over half of the U.S. population takes dietary supplements, according to the CDC. You have to wonder how many people had allergic reactions or developed side effects from the non-disclosed ingredients in the fraudulent products in New York. How many may have occurred and went unreported?
According to Slate, many people think that because herbs are “natural” and sold legally that they must be safe and effective. Maybe that’s why so many of us blindly trust herbal supplements. It’s a bit mind-boggling that we do since no one really knows what’s in any of them. There is a general mistrust of the FDA and pharmaceutical drugs but not about the quality of ingredients in dietary supplements, at least with the general public. Not too long ago I had a conversation with a woman in a health food store who protested when I mentioned that the supplements she was devoted to were not regulated in any credible way. She said, “I hope they are never regulated.”
There seems to be an ingrained loyalty and trust in these dietary supplements, and with over half of our population taking them, there must be a reason. Is it because these products are readily available to anyone and we are not dependent on physicians to use them? We rely on doctors for prescription medications and that’s not without seeing us in person and performing an exam and evaluation.
Is it because we want to heal ourselves? We can visit any GNC or Walgreens to buy remedies that promise weight loss, increased mental alertness, increased libido, and a good night’s sleep. Could it be that innately we know our bodies best and need some control over treatment for what ails us?
It’s a bit baffling that we have placed so much trust in companies like GNC, for example, whose products labeled Ginkgo Biloba only contained rice, asparagus and spruce—as in the tree.
At Target, products labeled St. John’s Wort and Valerian Root tested negative for herbs listed on the labels. The list goes on.
Where this gets dangerous is when products contain ingredients that people might be highly allergic to or could cause harm in other ways. According to the research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in October of 2014, researchers found anabolic steroids in 85 percent of body building and sports enhancement supplements. This gets downright scary.
Does having access to supplements that promise cures make us feel more in control of our health? Are we seeking to heal ourselves because we don’t trust doctors or can’t afford to see them? Why put blind faith in a product we know zero about?
I support self-healing whenever possible. I believe in patient empowerment. I also have faith in certain alternative treatments. But don’t consumers deserve to know what’s in supplements taken by over half of the population?
I’ve seen alternative medicine practitioners myself, such as acupuncturists and chiropractors. When I had a severe, lower abdominal pain condition lasting 16 months that no physician could diagnose or treat, I turned to them. I drank smelly teas, ingested capsules containing powdered ingredients with names I could not pronounce–all in hopes that the debilitating pain would subside. Nothing helped.
With all good intentions these practitioners tried to alleviate my pain with their herbs and supplements. Of course that wasn’t possible (something we didn’t know at the time) because what I had was a muscle tear in my C-section site with nerve involvement and an inguinal hernia with a nerve passing through the hole. A hernia specialist/surgeon fixed that and I’ve been pain free for 3 ½ years.
It’s frightening to look back on an acupuncturist I saw back then, one who was recommended by a physician at a highly respected medical school. After taking the supplements he gave me, I developed allergic reactions such as itchy ears, swollen glands, and sinus problems. I understood then that no herbal supplement was regulated. But I took them anyway because I was desperate, needed hope, had to believe the practitioner who recommended them.
Like anyone else, I fell for the promise.
We do need regulation on dietary supplements. Not just to protect consumers from swindlers making false claims but to protect our health, especially for those who have life-threatening allergies.
If you’re wondering about your own dietary supplements and if they are viable, you might check The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), a scientific nonprofit organization that sets standards for the identity, strength, quality and purity of medicines, food ingredients and dietary supplements. See link here http://www.usp.org/dietary-supplements/overview You might also try ConsumerLab.com see link here https://www.consumerlab.com I don’t claim any responsibility for the information from these two organizations.
I welcome your comments.
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