It’s a Jetson’s-like idea that most of us have become completely accustomed to: condense the nutritious elements of food into a neat little pill. Take the pill, and voila, you have all you need for optimal health. It’s a theory and practice that has enjoyed tremendous popularity in America since the 1970s when chemist extraordinaire Linus Pauling began promoting the importance of supplemental vitamins — in particular, vitamin C to ward off colds.
The health benefits of taking dietary supplements has been controversial in medical circles, but the American public has eaten up the idea to the tune of $25 billion per year. Half of all American adults take some type of dietary supplement regularly. The growing popularity has led to an increasing number of imported supplements containing contaminants, spiked with illegal drugs, and promising false health claims.
According to the article in the Times, Congress passed legislation in 1994 that allowed supplement makers to sell products without first getting approval from the Food and Drug Administraion (FDA) for ingredients or for basic health claims. But scientific organizations have warned repeatedly since then that the FDA should do more to ensure that the supplements are safe and that health claims are substantiated.
In recent years, most supplement suppliers have moved or opened abroad, mostly in China. Nearly all of the vitamin C and many other supplements consumed in the U.S. are made from ingredients made in Chinese plants. The Times article says those plants are almost never inspected by the FDA because the agency is not required to do so, has little money to do so and does not view the plants as particularly risky. Ahem.
The report summarizing the investigation was prepared by the Government Accountability Office and will be made public at a Senate hearing on Wednesday. In two weeks the Senate is scheduled to begin debate on a landmark food safety bill that is expected to greatly increase the federal government’s authority over food manufacturers. It is also likely to mandate that supplement makers register annually with the FDA and allow the agency to recall supplements suspected of being dangerous.
But it is uncertain how tough the bill will be on supplement manufacturers. Why? It has been the subject of fierce lobbying. Capitol Hill staff members familiar with the process said the bill was unlikely to include provisions opposed by supplement manufacturers. Remember, it is a $25 billion market after all. Sigh.
We’ll keep you posted as the hearing progresses, but in the meantime it would be prudent to make sure that the manufacturers that produce the supplements you take are reputable ones. Many people claim great benefit from supplements, but keep in mind that most scientists believe that the benefits of a healthful diet come from eating the whole fruit or vegetable, not just the individual vitamins or components found in it. So while the Senate and lobbyists are doing the thing that the Senate and lobbyists do, perhaps the workaround is to simply skip the supplements … and eat your fruit and vegetables.
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