Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Caveat Emptor: The Dangers of Dietary Supplements

By Philip SusserPublished February 22, 2015

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With a lack of governmental oversight, the deregulated dietary supplement industry has recently been guilty of falsely advertising their products. This will raise concern about the integrity of their product and consumer safety.
By Philip Susser, 2/22/2015

Dietary supplements — a product barred from advertising disease prevention— are used by a large fraction of the US population. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2011 that over half of the US population currently uses these supplements. This includes multivitamins, minerals, and herbs. In 2009 it was reported by the Nutrition Business Journal that Americans spent $26.7 billion on these products.

While it remains unclear whether the spike in supplement usage has made American's healthier, scientists and physicians alike warn that supplements are not an adequate replacement for a healthy lifestyle, including balanced diet and exercise. Certain vitamins, such as folic acid, are essential for a healthy pregnancy and provide benefit when consumed by pregnant women as a dietary supplement. However, multivitamins supplements are currently being used as a stopgap for poor nutrition.

Under F.D.A. guidelines, businesses that sell nutritional supplements are required to test their product to ensure accurate labeling. Unlike the over-the-counter drug industry, which is subject to a scrutinizing F.D.A. review, dietary supplements operate largely on an honor code. Senator Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) has been a large proponent of a deregulated dietary supplement industry. He was the chief supporter of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which classified dietary supplements as food rather than drugs and abandoned a need for proof of effectiveness or safety for drugs. Seemingly in exchange for his support, supplement companies have channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign financing for Hatch.

A lack of governmental oversight for these supplements has resulted in many products marketing spurious claims of value. Between 2007 and 2010, it was reported that over 300 products were falsely marketed by dietary supplements. The large majority of the false claims came from bodybuilding, weight loss, and sexual enhancing products. In the past, products have been found to contain pesticides, heavy metals, and prescription drugs. An example of a potentially harmful product that continues to reach consumers through dietary supplements is colloidal silver. Although the F.D.A. reported that this product was neither safe nor effective in 1999, the product continues to be sold through the dietary supplement market. A description of colloidal silver on the GNC website markets the product as promoting "immune defense". While there is a disclaimer that the claims have not been evaluated by the FDA, there is no mention of the F.D.A's 1999 claim of potential harmfulness. This misleading marketing is a cause for concern.

A recent cease and desist letter was sent to Walmart, Walgreens, and Target for selling falsely labeled nutritional products. This recent revelation has incited much public concern of the legitimacy of these products and has made a strong case for increased F.D.A. oversight within this historically unregulated industry. Although some may see the exaggerated claims of supplements as not being a justifiable case for another industry with red tape, these recent reports suggest that Senator Hatch's symbiotic relationship with industry (and resultant legislative framework) is alarming for consumers and government alike.