Josephine P. Briggs, M.D.
We’ve all seen the ads: Take this supplement and improve your health. Drink this juice and prevent cancer. But, can we believe everything we read or hear?
In the United States, dietary supplements are regulated differently than drugs and medications. The Federal Government regulates dietary supplements through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A manufacturer does not have to prove the safety and effectiveness of a dietary supplement before it is available to the public. Once a dietary supplement is on the market, the FDA monitors safety. If the FDA finds a product to be unsafe, it can take action—warning the manufacturer or requiring that the product be removed from the marketplace.
NCCAM-funded research often plays a role in assessing the safety of dietary supplements. In 2008, an NCCAM-funded study found that one-fifth of Ayurvedic medicines for sale over the Internet contained toxic metals. As a result of this study, the FDA issued a consumer advisory warning people to use caution when using these products.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) takes the lead in monitoring and taking action against misleading advertising, such as excessive claims. It’s an important job to ensure that consumers aren’t misled. For example, the FTC recently issued an administrative complaint charging the makers of POM Wonderful 100% Pomegranate Juice and POMx supplements with making false and unsubstantiated claims that their products will prevent or treat heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction. It’s true that NCCAM and other components of the National Institutes of Health are supporting research on pomegranate juice—it’s just too early to make these claims.
While the oversight provided by the Government is important, consumers should think critically about what they read in advertisements or on product labels. Does a claim sound too good to be true? Is it supported by research? Check the NCCAM, FDA, and FTC Web sites for information regarding the product. You can also search CAM on PubMed for peer-reviewed research studies. Also, remember to tell your health care provider about any products you are considering or are already using for your health.
Being an informed consumer is your best protection against misleading and excessive health claims.