Dietary Supplements Are A $36 Billion Business Interview with:

Leigh Purvis, MPA Director of Health Services Research AARP Public Policy Institute

Ms. Leigh Purvis

Leigh Purvis, MPA
Director of Health Services Research
AARP Public Policy Institute

Editors’ note: In conjunction with the AARP’s new investigative piece, ‘Supplement Pills That Promise Too Much’, Leigh Purvis, Director of the AARP Health Services Research program discussed the issue of the proliferation of supplements, often with labels that make extraordinary health benefit claims. How many Americans use nutritional supplements? How big is the business of supplements?

Response: Supplements are very popular in the United States. This is particularly true for older adults. A recent study found that the proportion of older adults using supplements increased from 52 percent in 2005 to 64 percent in 2011, and the share using multiple supplements grew by nearly 50 percent.

According to the National Institutes of Health, American spent an estimated $36.7 billion on dietary supplements in 2014. How are supplements regulated by the US government? How does the standard for safety in supplements differ from FDA approved medications?

Response: Unlike drug products that must be proven safe and effective for their intended use before marketing, dietary supplements do not have to go through an FDA approval process before they are marketed. This leaves supplement manufacturers and distributors responsible for determining that their products are safe and that any representations or claims are supported by evidence.

By law, anything labeled as a dietary supplement is assumed to be safe until proven otherwise. In cases where FDA has evidence that a product is unsafe, it can take action to restrict the product’s use or remove it from the marketplace. Can supplements be advertised differently from FDA approved medications?

Response: FDA regulates advertising for prescription drugs and actively oversees the industry to ensure that manufacturers provide information that is truthful, balanced, and accurately described. In contrast, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates advertising for dietary supplements. Supplement manufacturers are prohibited from making false or misleading claims but regulators usually only take action after receiving consumer complaints. What should readers take away from your article?

Response: Dietary supplements may be beneficial in certain circumstances but it’s definitely a case of buyer beware.
There are a number of unknowns.

  • Is the product what it says it is?
  • Is it safe?
  • Does it do what it claims to do?
  • And perhaps most importantly—do I really need to be taking it in the first place?Most people can get all of the nutrients they need from a well-balanced diet. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: Dietary supplements can interact with prescription drugs. Be sure to tell your health care provider if you are taking or considering taking a supplement in conjunction with prescribed medications. Thank you for your contribution to the community.

Article in July/August 2016 AARP Bulletin:

Note: Content is Not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider regarding your specific medical condition and questions.

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