With the excess amounts of information available to us now via the internet and a variety of other sources, there is a deluge of news regarding supplements. Any given day a new story can be published regarding supplements that leads to questions. These questions may be about whether supplements are beneficial or harmful, which ones are most effective or not effective at all, and whether or not they should even be ingested. Here are a few ways to help determine whether or not what is published is legitimate.
The source of the information can be vital in determining if the information you are acquiring is legitimate or not. Gathering information from an unbiased source that isn’t directly involved with the sales of a product or wouldn’t benefit from an article whether it is positive or negative is ideal. “When searching for supplements on the internet, use noncommercial sites (e.g. NIH, FDA, USDA) rather than depending on information from sellers,” advises the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (1). These sites, especially those based in science, will typically offer cold hard facts that can be utilized as a starting point towards your research into supplement news.
However, many of us will have our go-to publications and news sources that we rely on. These often distill scientific information in easily digestible ways that help us draw conclusions more easily. Big news sources such as newspapers and magazines have fact-checkers that verify information or will cite their sources. Citations are helpful because they allow you to explore another source of information. They are particularly important when coming across a website that is unfamiliar. Checking these sources can be the litmus test for how reliable the information is. Students may remember being told time and again by teachers not to trust Wikipedia, for example, because the sources may be unreliable. Be sure to check multiple sources for confirmation of information you have obtained.
As with many industries, those working in it perceive a bias against it, particularly from mainstream media outlets because they typically focus on reporting negative topics such as recalls and clinical trials that may contradict established information. Skeptics of dietary supplements may view these reports as proof while believers view them as an aberration. Indeed, not all studies are well designed and industry advocates will say so, easing the concerns of dietary supplement users.
We don’t encourage anyone to validate only their personal world view, but to try to get both sides of the story and decide for themselves. For example, a few years ago, when negative press came out questioning fish oil’s effectiveness for supporting heart health, it caused a decline in sales and anxiety in the industry. However, in science, one study cannot refute an abundant amount of research.
Noncommercial sites that are primarily informational are ideal, though sites for specific product manufacturers can sometimes provide helpful information. It should however, be taken with a grain of salt and more due diligence should be conducted from outside sources. This is particularly true if one manufacturer is disparaging another’s product.
Be wary of products making generous claims. “If claims sound too good to be true, they probably are. Be mindful of product claims such as ‘works better than [a prescription drug],’ ‘totally safe,’ or has ‘no side effects,’” advises FDA (1). Supplements do not require the same level of scrutiny as drugs, so FDA is not authorized to review dietary supplement products for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed, unless it is a new dietary ingredient. However, this means that supplement manufacturers cannot make disease claims that over-the-counter and prescription drugs are authorized to make.
“Unlike drugs, which must be approved by the FDA before they can be marketed, dietary supplements do not require premarket review or approval by the FDA. While the supplement company is responsible for having evidence that their products are safe and that label claims are truthful and not misleading, they do not have to provide that evidence to the FDA before the product is marketed,” explains the National Institutes of Health (2).
Knowing the manufacturer of the supplement and their history can be helpful in this regard. Enforcement actions are made public by FDA and can be easily found on their sites. Most dietary supplement manufacturers and suppliers follow the letter of the law closely, but some go too far, either pushing the envelope with the claims they’re allowed to make or even marketing products with dangerous and illegal ingredients. The latter is particularly important to watch because their irresponsibility can harm consumers and unfortunately reflects negatively on the industry as a whole. It is important to keep in mind that on the whole, dietary supplement companies manufacture and sell products responsibly.
Varying conflicting reports about supplements can make being informed difficult. Knowing the correct way to verify information found concerning supplements is important in weighing decisions regarding the validity of news being reported about them. Regardless of facts and opinions involving supplement information, one fact remains the same, supplements are not there to cure or treat disease, and with any changes to diet, always check with a physician before starting a dietary supplement regimen. This is particularly important if one takes prescription drugs, in order to avoid interactions (3). WF
- S. Food and Drug Administration, “Tips for Dietary Supplement Users,” https://www.fda.gov/Food/DietarySupplements/UsingDietarySupplements/ucm110567.htm, accessed June 19, 2017.
- National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements, “Dietary Supplements – What You Need to Know,” https://ods.od.nih.gov/HealthInformation/DS_WhatYouNeedToKnow.aspx, accessed June 20, 2017.
- John Hopkins Medicine, “Dietary Supplements,” http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/healthlibrary/conditions/adult/complementary_and_alternative_medicine/dietary_supplements_85,p00178/, accessed June 22, 2017.
Published in WholeFoods Magazine August 2017