The legitimacy of dietary supplements: Problems with regulation

Many dietary supplements contain unapproved and unregulated ingredients

The supplement craze is in full effect.

Whether you're going to a store or buying them online, 75 percent of Americans are taking something.

"I see people all of the time in the emergency department that admit they're on supplements -- the problem is they rarely ever know exactly what they're on or what's in them," said Dr. Frank McGeorge.

Even supplements that claim to be "all-natural" are to be eyed with caution.

"There are many things found in nature that are not good for you, so ‘all-natural' does not mean all-safe," McGeorge said.

FDA regulation

The problem lies in the Food and Drug Administration's way of regulating dietary supplements, Hank Winchester found. Because supplements are treated more like food by the FDA, they are not subjected to the same safety standards or rigorous testing that drugs are.

"The standard that supplement manufacturers are held is very, very low," McGeorge said. "This is not a medication in the way that you might buy something from an actual pharmacy behind the counter. The point being, this is a buyer beware situation. If you buy supplements, if you take them, you are taking the risk."

Studies find many products contain unapproved and unregulated ingredients, especially in those sold online. Researchers from the California Department of Public Health found that from 2007 to 2016, 776 products marketed as diet supplements contained hidden active ingredients that were either unstudied or unsafe.

"Unregulated supplements are a huge problem, because they may contain ingredients that are not on the labeling or they may contain slightly different ingredients," McGeorge said.

Talk to your pharmacist, doctor

Consumers should speak to their pharmacists or doctors before taking a supplement to make sure they won't interact with any other medication they're taking.

"Supplements, if they interact with any of the medication that you're on, or if you take them in excess, can cause harmful, dangerous and even life-threatening reactions," McGeorge said.

To reduce the risk of taking supplements, buy from reputable sources and avoid taking supplements that promise a certain health outcome or make other claims.

The FDA is trying to be more aggressive about getting harmful supplements off the market. Consumers are encouraged to report any serious reactions through the FDA website

For more information on dietary supplements, visit the FDA's website. The administration also maintains a list of tainted weight-loss and sexual-enhancement products they're identified.

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