What you need to know about dietary supplements

November 17, 1998|By Lynn F. Little

Some things just don't make sense. For example, take health claims on food products versus health claims on dietary supplements.

It takes years of studies and huge stacks of paperwork to get approval from Food and Drug Administration to make a health claim on a food product, such as high fiber on oatmeal packaging. But grind up the oatmeal and sell it in pill form, and you can make a claim based on a single study, with no preapproval needed from the FDA.

--cont. from lifestyle--

Because of this, four scientific associations of food and nutrition professionals joined forces to urge the public to be aware of fraudulent claims when purchasing dietary supplements. Vitamins, minerals, fiber, amino acids, phytochemicals, herbal products and botanicals all are considered dietary supplements. In the publication "What Does the Public Need To Know About Dietary Supplements?" the Food and Nutrition Science Alliance makes the following recommendations for consumers:


1. When buying dietary supplements, caveat emptor applies: "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is not true." Although federal regulations on dietary supplements require that statements on products be "truthful and not misleading," there is no standard for the acceptability of the supporting science. Therefore, claims may be based on single studies having inadequate or flawed science.

2. Among dietary supplements, less is known about herbals and botanicals than about vitamins and minerals. There are no federal standards for herbals and botanicals to ensure their safety, purity or quality. Also, despite growing interest in these products, relatively little is known about most of them.

3. Multivitamins in moderation can help some people. High doses of some supplements can be harmful. Scientists agree that a daily multivitamin may help some people meet their nutritional needs.

Included in this group are pregnant women, children, the elderly and individuals with certain diseases. However, more is not necessarily better. Any biologically active ingredient consumed in excess can be harmful. Examples of vitamins and minerals known to be harmful when consumed in excess include vitamin A, niacin, vitamin B6, vitamin D, iron and folic acid. Although less is known about herbals and botanicals than about vitamins and minerals, examples of products known to cause harm if taken in high doses include ma hung, guar gum, willow bark, comfrey and chaparral.

4. Natural is not synonymous with safe. As with all chemicals, nutrients and plant extracts taken in high enough doses and for long enough periods can be toxic. At this time, too few herbal products bear warnings on their labels.

5. For good health, eat a variety of foods. While supplements may help in some cases, they are not the total answer. Supplements lack other components of food that may be beneficial and are no substitute for the good nutrition obtained from eating a variety of foods. The best advice still is to eat a variety of foods.

Maryland Cooperative Extension programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, religion or national origin.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences extension educator for Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County.

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