Multivitamins. Airborne. Protein shake powder. Herbal remedies. Energy drinks. These are only some of the products marketed to the public as dietary supplements. According to an article in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, the dietary supplement industry has grown more than five-fold since the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. Today, it accounts for 23.7 billion dollars.
Unfortunately for the consumer, it is very difficult to assess the benefits of dietary supplements. First, most of the current research on the active ingredients in supplements is not conclusive. Dosage can vary from study to study, as can the form of the ingredient (for example, there are multiple types of ginseng). Moreover, it’s becoming evident that some supplements are good for some conditions, but not for others. Ultimately, there is a dire need for better research on the efficacy of supplements.
In the meantime, the world of dietary supplements is best described as a circus. Between exaggerated marketing, fanatical websites from disreputable sources, and conflicting research studies, it’s a challenge for any individual to figure out if a product will really achieve the desired result (and yes, it’s up to us to make that decision). The Journal of the American Dietetic Association lists some reliable resources out there to help parse through the research.
NIH Office of Dietary Supplements
NIH National Center of Complementary and Alternative Medicine
National Cancer Institute
Dietary Supplement Ingredient Database
Dietary Supplements Labels Database
Regulation of Dietary Supplements
ConsumerLab.com (fee required)
Natural Standard Professional Database (fee required)
Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database (fee required)
I should note that we don’t discuss the safety issues associated with dietary supplements here. The regulatory framework for supplement safety is designed in a way that relies on consumers to report any adverse effects of supplement use. These products are “use at your own risk.” Should you have a negative reaction, consult your physician and report your issue to the FDA.