The FDA recently announced that it plans to increase its oversight of the multi-billion dollar supplement industry. This would include everything from the calcium and multivitamins at your local drug store, to those questionable weight loss and virility supplements pitched on late night cable TV stations.
According to the FDA, “Three out of every four American consumers take a dietary supplement on a regular basis. For older Americans, the rate rises to four in five. And one in three children take supplements.”
All of these are currently regulated under guidelines known as DSHEA—the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. According to the regulations, manufacturers are responsible for ensuring that their products are safe and correctly labeled.
However, unlike drug makers, supplement manufacturers do not have to submit proof of safety or efficacy before bringing their product to market. It’s sort of an honor system. If you get caught doing something wrong, you’ll be punished. But for the most part, there’s an assumption that people are following the rules.
In the 25 years since these regulations were enacted, the supplement industry has grown ten-fold—from about 4,000 products in 1994 to 50,000 different products now. With this explosive growth has come an increasing number of what FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb calls “bad actors,” aka companies that are either intentionally or accidentally breaking the rules. As a result, there’s a greater chance that consumers will be exposed to products that have undeclared or even illegal ingredients or contaminants.There’s also a greater chance that products may include unapproved or inaccurate health claims.
In response, Gottlieb intends to step up enforcement of the regulations. Hopefully, this will result in fewer people going to the emergency room due to adverse effects from dietary supplements. (In 2015, there were 23,000 such visits).
But, to tell you the truth, even when manufacturers are strictly obeying the rules, there’s still a lot of potential for consumers to be wasting their money on supplements that simply aren’t doing anything for them.