Are Nutritional Supplements a Waste of Money?

The FDA is stepping up its oversight of the $50 billion nutritional supplement industry. Hopefully, it'll help reduce the number of people who are hurt by harmful products. Unfortunately, it won't do much to reduce the amount we waste on useless ones. Nutrition Diva has the scoop on which supplements are money down the drain.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
5-minute read
Episode #515

The FDA recently announced that it plans to increase its oversight of the multi-billion dollar supplement industry. This would include everything from the calcium and multivitamins at your local drug store, to those questionable weight loss and virility supplements pitched on late night cable TV stations.

According to the FDA, “Three out of every four American consumers take a dietary supplement on a regular basis. For older Americans, the rate rises to four in five. And one in three children take supplements.”

All of these are currently regulated under guidelines known as DSHEAthe Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. According to the regulations, manufacturers are responsible for ensuring that their products are safe and correctly labeled.

However, unlike drug makers, supplement manufacturers do not have to submit proof of safety or efficacy before bringing their product to market. It’s sort of an honor system. If you get caught doing something wrong, you’ll be punished. But for the most part, there’s an assumption that people are following the rules.

In the 25 years since these regulations were enacted, the supplement industry has grown ten-foldfrom about 4,000 products in 1994 to 50,000 different products now.  With this explosive growth has come an increasing number of what FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb calls “bad actors,” aka companies that are either intentionally or accidentally breaking the rules. As a result, there’s a greater chance that consumers will be exposed to products that have undeclared or even illegal ingredients or contaminants.There’s also a greater chance that products may include unapproved or inaccurate health claims.

In response, Gottlieb intends to step up enforcement of the regulations. Hopefully, this will result in fewer people going to the emergency room due to adverse effects from dietary supplements. (In 2015, there were 23,000 such visits).

But, to tell you the truth, even when manufacturers are strictly obeying the rules, there’s still a lot of potential for consumers to be wasting their money on supplements that simply aren’t doing anything for them.

How Supplements Are Marketed

With the exception of a small number of approved claims, manufacturers are not allowed to say that that a dietary supplement will cure, treat, or prevent a specific disease or symptom. They are limited to what are called structure/function claims. For example, they can’t say that this calcium supplement will prevent osteoporosis. They can only say that calcium supports bone health.

Manufacturersand their marketing teamshave learned how to communicate in code. Supplements don’t reduce arthritis pain, instead they maintain joint flexibility. They don’t reduce cholesterol, they help maintain healthy cholesterol levels. They don’t fight viral infections, they support healthy immune function. And so on.

But no-one is really fooled by this. Just as supplement manufacturers have learned to talk around the regulations, we consumers have learned to read between the lines. If it’s called Osteo-palooza, there’s a picture of an older woman on the front and it says something about maintaining healthy bones, we’re going to connect the dots. We’re unlikely to be dissuaded by the fact that the bottle also says in small print: “These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to treat, prevent, or cure any disease.”


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.