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Mass Confusion

The Truth About Dietary Supplements

Federal Trade Commission and Food and Drug Administration have announced new guidelines for dietary supplements, but the fuzzy language and the lack of oversight will do little to effectively separate unethical companies from the core of the industry. Consumers must do their own research to gauge whether a supplement is even safe.

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When swine flu captured the world’s attention in late April, it was only a matter of days before dietary-supplement profiteers sought to cash in. “No one should have to die from the swine or bird flu,” soon proclaimed a blog that touted Nature Sunshine’s Silver Shield, a 4-ounce, $32.65-a-bottle drink that supposedly helps the immune system to fight the latest media-driven scourge. Another supplement company, Nzymes, jumped in to assert that one of its 8-ounce, $49.50 bottles of Ox-EDrops “could possibly wage an effective defense” against swine flu.

By early May, several companies promoted their own swine-flu concoctions on the Web, and Food and Drug Administration stepped in to warn consumers that none of them has been approved and there’s no vaccine for swine flu. (One is expected in the fall.)

It is yet another shady chapter in the potential quagmire that is the $23.7 billion dietary-supplements industry, where the warning buyer beware long has been the rule. Unfortunately, efforts in the past 2 years by Federal Trade Commission and FDA do little to make things any less murky.

DOSE OF MARKETING. Unlike pharmaceutical companies, supplement manufacturers don’t have to prove that their products are effective and safe to get them to the marketplace. That allows a rush to market, says Tod Cooperman of ConsumerLab, which is an independent supplements-testing organization. Consequently, there’s always a new set of copycat fads that are available.

Super-juices—one of the latest products—purport to contain the antioxidants of exotic berries from tropical jungles. Some can be found in natural-food stores or grocery chains, but others are sold through multilevel marketing programs by independent distributors. Some claim to promote joint health. Others promise a revitalized brain. A few juices even claim to cure diabetes and cancer! They typically cost $40 or more per 750-milliliter (roughly 25-ounce) bottle.

One of the hottest ingredients in these drinks is Açai. Açai (pronounced ah-sah-EE) is an Amazonian rain-forest fruit that has attracted a number of shady sellers. In early 2008, the berry got a big promotional push when it was mentioned on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Rachael Ray.” Since then, ads on Facebook and Google have herded consumers to dozens of questionable Web site e-tailers.

Goji berry is another newer exotic berry. It is said to provide a lot of nutrients, fiber, protein and antioxidants, says Paul Gross, an author and expert on super fruit. However, there’s not enough research to prove its health effects.

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These are just two ingredients that are available. Now, consider that there were roughly 33,000 dietary supplements on the U.S. market in 2007, according to Nutrition Business Journal.

“It’s a very confusing marketplace,” says Len Monheit, who is president of NPIcenter—an information resource for the supplement industry. “There are brands all over the place. The price points are all over the place.” His caution, though obvious, still rings true, particularly when you consider the lack of hard evidence regarding supplements in general: “If it sounds too good to be true, it likely is.”

TRUTH IN LABELING. When you go to a store and buy 1,000-milligram pills of vitamin C, you expect that that’s what is in the bottle. But, believe it or not, until last year there were no federal guidelines in place to ensure that that was the case.

“It’s always funny to ask [manufacturers] the question: Where does your vitamin C come from?” says Ed Wyszumiala, who is general manager of NSF International’s Dietary Supplements Programs. “A lot of them will think it comes from some warehouse in New Jersey or on the West Coast.”

Wrong. Wyszumiala says 98 percent of all vitamin C comes from China—well-known for its lack of product oversight—and one small facility in north England. (And you can’t tell which is which by looking at the bottle.) The fact that vitamin C supplement manufacturers can’t even pinpoint the origin of their main ingredient illustrates the problems of an industry that self-regulates.

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