Ever since the invention of the Flintstones vitamin, savvy marketers have successfully convinced Americans that the best way to stay healthy is with a tiny Dino-shaped, candy-flavored pill. And why not? We're told every day of the benefits of this vitamin or that supplement and given to think that optimum health is nothing more than a pill bottle away.
Putting your health in the hands of a supplement might be a wasted effort, though, based on a Consumers Reports investigation published in the magazine's September 2012 issue. Between 2007 and April 2012, dietary supplements were the source of more than 6,300 adverse events reported to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the magazine found, and those included 115 deaths and 2,100 hospitalizations—figures that don't exactly make anyone want to shout "Yabba-dabba-doo!"
So what's going on? It all points to weak regulations and a federal agency that's loath to try to exert control over a powerful industry that rakes in billions every year and often advertises dozens of promises that can't be delivered in a tiny pill.
False Promise #1: If it's in a bottle, it has to be safe.
According to the FDA's website, "generally, manufacturers do not need to register their products or get FDA approval before producing or selling dietary supplements." So essentially, any company could create and market a supplement without first undergoing government approval or testing. Looking for a new part-time job? Just create a capsule that supposedly will boost metabolism, weight loss, or energy—things people are always looking to improve—and you're golden.
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Consumer Reports also noted that the FDA doesn't require supplement manufacturers to post drug-interaction warnings on labels, which puts people in danger of other problems. For instance, St.-John's-wort lowers the efficacy of birth control pills, as well as blood pressure medications, and magnesium supplements may decrease the absorption of certain antibiotics, lessening their effectiveness.
False Promise #2: Yes, our vitamins really do contain what we say they do!
Because supplement regulations don't appear to be a huge FDA concern, the makeup of supplements is left to a company's discretion, so whatever the company thinks are proper ingredient amounts is what’s in that company’s supplement. To paraphrase the great philosopher Forrest Gump, you never know what you're gonna get.
Tod Cooperman, MD, runs ConsumerLab.com, an independent website that tests supplements for quality and analyzes whether they deliver the levels of vitamins promised on the label. His tests have revealed that many supplements claim to contain a certain quantity of a certain vitamin or mineral but in reality contain much less. "The product is supposed to contain 100 percent of what it claims, but that doesn't mean it will," he says.
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In addition to that, ConsumerLab has found lead in calcium supplements, mercury in fish oil pills, and a number of other contaminants in popular vitamins. And you're not going to see any of those on a label. "Manufacturers are required to test ingredients that go into their products and check for contaminants, but the government doesn't specify the method or criteria for determining whether the quality is there or not," Cooperman says.
False Promise #3: Yes, they're healthy!
Other than the fact that some supplements don't always practice what they preach, the nutrients they promise often wind up in gummies, chocolate chews, granola bars, brownies, or dozens of other "functional foods" that are fortified with a plethora of vitamins and minerals accompanied by a shameful ingredient list. Sugar, corn syrup, trans fat–laden hydrogenated oils, and artificial food dyes and flavorings are not uncommon in these supplements and foods, and you might not think to read the ingredients label of something that's supposed to make you healthier. Does eating a supplement outweigh the risk of all those extra calories? You might as well drink a glass of milk or eat a regular piece of dark chocolate, both of which have known health benefits without the added food processing chemicals unlike those candy wannabe supplements, and call it a day.
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The solution? Eat whole foods and do your research.
Before you start popping gummy chews that look—and taste—like glorified fruit snacks, Cooperman encourages you do your research, and don’t buy anything on a whim. "In most cases you're better off getting vitamins and minerals from your food and drinks," says Cooperman. And according to Jose Mosquera, MD, medical adviser for Consumer Reports, people really shouldn't be taking supplements for vitamins and minerals unless they've been diagnosed with a true deficiency.
Our good friend calcium is the perfect example of too much of a good thing, and a number of recent studies have found that overdoing your calcium intake might lead to heart problems. "You're getting this big burst of calcium, which might increase the risk of calcification within your arteries and your chance of a stroke," Cooperman says. Absorption of calcium is typically slower with food, he adds, so your body isn't hit with a megadose all at once, as it is with a supplement.
You only have one body, so make sure you're taking care of it. Toss the glorified candy aside, and reap nutritional benefits from real foods and drinks.
In the event that you are diagnosed with a deficiency and need to take a supplement, look for ConsumerLab.com–certified products, or those bearing either the U.S. Pharmacopoeia's USP Verified Dietary Supplement or NSF Certified Dietary Supplement seals. These verify that vitamins and supplements are free of contaminants, they deliver what their labels claim, and the manufacturers comply with the FDA's good manufacturing practices.