FDA must control diet supplements

Thursday, December 26, 2013
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Just as sure as the clock striking 12 next Tuesday night will ring in a new year, millions of Americans will start new diets in an effort to shed unwanted holiday pounds. Some will succeed, while others may die trying — in part because of the unregulated dietary supplements they’ll consume in search of fast, easy weight loss. The age-old consumer warning, “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” may never have been truer.

A Dec. 22 report in the New York Times indicates that weight-loss supplements containing green tea extract — as well as others designed for body builders — have been implicated in a growing number of liver injuries. According to the report, products that have been tampered with, mislabeled or packaged in untested doses, have become a big part of the $32-billion-a-year dietary supplement business.

Americans continue to fall for the largely undocumented claims that the various pills and powders will help them knock off pounds, build their bodies and live healthier lives. Instead, many of the products do little good and some cause tremendous harm or even death.

Those are the ones that contain more of the active ingredients (like green tea extract in diet aids) than their packages purport to, or different active ingredients (like steroids that have been found in body-building aids with no indication on the package). And the reason this has been going on, largely, is that the Food and Drug Administration has little control over the products. It isn’t allowed to test them for efficacy before they go on the market, and can only investigate them if there’s a complaint that they’ve caused harm. (A decade ago, it banned an herbal weight-loss aid known as ephedra after it was linked to 155 deaths.)

That doesn’t seem to be a very safe system, as evidenced by the explosion in the growth of liver problems (and need for transplants) caused by dietary supplements: A decade ago, it was just 7 percent of the total reported to hospitals; now, it’s up to 20 percent.

Even the FDA seems skeptical, estimating that 70 percent of the companies making these products do not adhere to basic quality control standards to prevent them from becoming adulterated. Meanwhile, only 0.3 percent of the 55,000 supplements sold in this country have been studied for side effects.

While it would obviously be a costly addition to its mandate, the FDA needs to be given more authority over these supplements. It’s not enough to simply say caveat emptor when lives are at stake.

 

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