Supplementary education

By Jeffrey Young

This scary story in The New York Times about contaminated, celebrity-endorsed diet pills highlights a particularly egregious example of "when dietary supplements go bad" but also provides an opportunity for me to share some fun facts about these popular products. I covered this industry full-time for The Tan Sheet (expensive subscription required) when I was a puppy and I'm still surprised how little people seem to know about what they're popping.

Americans spent $22.5 billion on vitamins, minerals, herbals, etc., in 2006, according to the Nutrition Business Journal (via the Natural Products Association, a trade group). I'm betting that most of those dollars were spent by people who thought the Food & Drug Administration had tested the stuff to verify that it does what it says and is what it says it is.

Those shoppers would be wrong.

Read the Times' article for the details about the latest bad news but the sort of terrifying problem illustrated by that story isn't a daily occurrence by any stretch. Nevertheless, not to turn this blog into Konsumer Korner, I'm figure those emptors may not be adequately caveated. (Full disclosure: I'm a habitual user of store-brand multivitamins.)

Under current federal regulations, established by a 1994 statute, dietary supplements are considered food, meaning the FDA doesn't require the manufacturers to prove their claims. In fact, if you give the labels a close read, you'll notice that supplements don't actually promise to treat or cure any disease. That's because they aren't allowed to.

All this might sound crazy but there's some historical context that helps explain it.

Foremost, as the industry would rightly point out, supplements used to be classified as heavily regulated food additives and it was very, very hard to get new products on to market before Congress unanimously passed and President Clinton signed legislation to change the rules. Since then, the market has exploded -- much to the chagrin of consumer groups like Public Citizen.

Depending on your point of view, there's plenty of credit or blame to go around: the law was brought to being by an extraordinary bipartisan alliance of lawmakers like Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), alongside interest groups outside Congress, such as supplement manufacturers, alternative-medicine advocates, and civil libertarians.

Jeffrey Young is a staff writer at The Hill.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2009/02/supplementary-education/476/