The newest issue of Consumer Reports features “Vitamins and Supplements – 10 dangers that may surprise you.” Here’s my take on the topic. About 40% of adults in the U.S. take vitamin and/or mineral supplements on a regular basis, spending $23 billion annually. But there is a problem: According to Consumer Reports: the FDA expects an average of 8,160 reports annually of serious adverse events associated with dietary supplements to be filed by companies in the next three years.
Due to the limited regulation of dietary supplements (differently than prescription drugs), some manufacturers make spurious and unproven claims about the benefits of their products. The law allows them to make structure or function claims such as increasing energy, enhance performance, lose weight and body fat, prevent aging, and relieve symptoms of menopause, fatigue, or stress. Most of these claims do not require any scientific evidence; however, if a claim is made that, for example, says the product will decrease the risk of heart disease by reducing blood cholesterol, there has to be scientific evidence to support the claim.
There is also no guarantee that a product meets any standards of quality, purity, or consistency. To help consumers make choices, look for the symbols that the product meets acceptable standards like the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) or ConsumerLab,com that is used by some manufacturers on a voluntary basis. To learn more, go to http://www.USPVerified.org. or http://www.ConsumerLab.com.
Consumer Reports discusses some common problems with supplements. Consumer Reports suggests you type the name of your supplement into the search box at www.fda.gov to see whether it has been recalled or subject to alerts or warnings.
It’s easy to overdose on vitamins and minerals due to food fortification. Consumer Reports gives an excellent example using calcium. The Upper Tolerable Limit for calcium is 2,000 mg/day.
“Suppose a women over 50 is concerned about bone health has for breakfast a serving of Whole Grain Total cereal (about 1,000 mg. calcium), one-half a cup of skim milk (150 mg. calcium), one serving of calcium-fortified orange juice (350 mg) one calcium supplement (500 mg calcium). She would then attain the 2000 mg limit without any further contribution of calcium from the diet.
Herbal remedies are another whole story. Check with your doctor before taking traditional herbs; many herbal products can cause side effects or have risky interactions.
In the report, antioxidant supplements were found to not be effective in protecting against cancer risks. It is far better to get antioxidant nutrients from foods, not a pill bottle. The antioxidants in question include vitamin C, E, and beta-carotene along with the mineral selenium. Some studies have even found in clinical trials that some of them could even increase cancer risk, e.g. vitamin E may increase the risk of prostate cancer in healthy men. It is thought that in people over 60, half of them take vitamin E supplements and that 23% of them take 400 IIU a day when the recommended amount is only 22 IU.
Guidelines for Choosing and Using Vitamin and Mineral Supplements.
- Look for the “USP” symbol or Consumer Lab.com on the label. They are tested for purity and dose. They do not address product safety or effectiveness.
- Terms such as “release-assured”, “laboratory tested”, “scientifically blended”, “provide energy” on labels guarantee nothing.
- Look for the expiration date.
- Choose supplements containing 100% of the Daily Value (DV) or less.
- Take supplements with meals.
- Avoid calcium supplements made from oyster shells, bone, or oral calcium. They may contain lead or aluminum.
- Store supplements where small children cannot get to them.
But most importantly, try to get your nutrients from whole foods. Whole foods are loaded with phytochemicals (from plants) and other substances that have healthy benefits not found in a pill.