Pew: The FDA should be responsible for the safety of supplements.

KEY IDEA: A new survey finds that most American adults believe the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should do more to ensure the safety of supplements, whose ingredients range from vitamins and plant extracts to probiotics, hormones, and amino acids.

The FDA lacks the means to create a mandatory product listing or obtain such basic details under the law governing regulation of supplements, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. The law, which turns 25 this October, generally limits the agency’s ability to act on safety concerns after a supplement goes on the market.

As many as 80,000 different supplements are sold in the U.S. Ensuring that the FDA has basic information about them would help the agency identify potentially dangerous products and better protect consumers. For instance, if the FDA learned of risks tied to a certain ingredient, it could easily pinpoint other products with the same component and take steps to alert manufacturers and the public.

More than 15,000 health problems linked to supplements were reported to the FDA between 2004 and 2013, but the survey findings suggest that many more negative reactions may have occurred. About 1 in 8 adults—12 percent—said they or an immediate family member had experienced a severe side effect, such as a heart, kidney, or liver problem, from a supplement.

Conflicting health information on supplements

Just a couple of weeks ago there were numerous reports casting doubt on fish oil supplements, but now that seems to be changing, again. According to a new meta-analysis of recent clinical trial data, taking daily omega-3 supplements could protect against heart attacks. These were the findings of an updated meta-analysis that pooled data from 13 trials involving more than 125,000 participants.

The analysis revealed that those who took omega-3 fish oil supplements every day had a lower risk for most cardiovascular disease conditions compared with those taking a placebo. 

Should the FDA jump in?

Supplements are a jungle of a market. There are many well-established brands who test their supplements for potency to ensure that their ingredients are reliable but there are many more who do not.

The FDA, currently, does not have the resources to monitor the supplement market. In the recent past they have taken some supplement makers to task for including Rx ingredients in their capsules but it’s unrealistic to expect that the FDA could regulate the supplement market. Some retailers, like Costco, require vendors to submit product samples to third party labs for testing but others do not and that could represent a danger to consumers.

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