Nutrition-wise blog

Dietary supplements: Greater accountability needed

By Jennifer K. Nelson, R.D., L.D. and Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. January 18, 2011

In December 2010, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took several steps to improve the safety of dietary supplements. These steps included:

  • Sending a letter to the dietary supplement industry emphasizing that companies are legally responsible for preventing tainted products — including those with undeclared or deceptively labeled ingredients — from being sold in the United States.
  • Starting a new rapid public notification system (a RSS feed) so consumers can receive timely updates about tainted supplements.
  • Creating a mechanism for industry to alert the FDA about potentially tainted products.

In its letter to manufacturers, the FDA pointed out that in recent years the agency has received nearly 300 reports of tainted products and numerous complaints of injuries — including stroke, organ failure and death. The three most common categories of tainted dietary supplements are:

  • Weight-loss products
  • Body-building products
  • Sexual enhancement products

Five major supplement trade associations have joined with FDA on its safety effort. I applaud them, but wonder if this is it enough?

I realize that there are several sides to this story. Some take the view that government regulation is heavy-handed, and that regulating supplements will reduce availability and cause prices to sky rocket — and there will still be safety issues. Some take the side that manufacturers have been given too long to police themselves and that they have not been successful — more regulation is needed. Yet others will take the tact that personal responsibility is paramount — akin to "what you take is what you get."

In my opinion, all three groups have responsibilities in this matter. The FDA is on the right track in keeping the manufacturers of supplements accountable. However, more power to regulate may be needed. Manufacturers must also work to ensure that their products and safe and effective.

And just as important — consumers need to take personal responsibility for knowing and understanding the risks and benefits of using supplements. Responsible use includes informing your doctor and other healthcare providers about any supplements you use. So, one of your New Year's resolutions should be to bring a complete list of the supplements you take to your next appointment.

- Jennifer

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Jan. 18, 2011