by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Supplements

Oct 14 2014

Today’s food politics of Ebola

Ebola is much in the news, and for good reason.  It is highly contagious, difficult to contain, and deadly.

In food studies, we say that food is a lens through which to view the most important problems of society.  Here are some thoughts on the food politics of Ebola.

Dietary Supplements for Ebola Prevention or Treatment

The Council for Responsible Nutrition, the trade association for supplement manufacturers, has found it necessary to issue an advisory on use of dietary supplements to prevent or treat Ebola infections.

The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), the Natural Products Association (NPA), and the United Natural Products Alliance (UNPA) are therefore endorsing the following unified advisory for marketers and retailers, as well as for consumers of dietary supplements:

  • Marketers and retailers of dietary supplements are urged to refuse to stock or sell any supplements that are presented as treating or curing Ebola virus disease, or preventing Ebola virus infection.
  • Marketers and retailers should refrain from promoting any dietary supplement as a cure or treatment for Ebola virus disease.
  • Anyone who believes they may have Ebola virus disease or may have come in contact with the Ebola virus should contact a healthcare professional immediately. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more information on Ebola virus disease and the proper actions to take if you suspect you are ill.

The knowledge that no known treatment exists for Ebola has not stopped supplement manufacturers from advertising the benefits of their products for this infection.

FDA Warning Letters

The FDA has stepped in and issued warning letters to three manufacturers marketing their products as possible treatments or cures.  The FDA letters, which make interesting reading, went to:

Marketing of Nutritional Supplements

A simple Google search of “supplements Ebola” turned up this kind of information this morning:

The Ebola virus can be destroyed naturally – despite what you’ve been told To date, not a single virus has been tested that is not inactivated (killed) by a large enough dose of vitamin C (ascorbic acid). Many other antioxidants have similar virucidal effects, but vitamin C appears uniquely to be of greatest potency and clinical efficacy, as its simple chemical structure allows for it to be disseminated throughout the body with little restriction… Vitamin C is both very potent and optimally bioavailable in accessing any viral infection.

And this:

The substances in the Natural Allopathic protocol for Ebola offer a power unequalled in the world of medicine that we can harness to save many lives of people infected with Ebola…. Magnesium salts, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), iodine, selenium and vitamin C are concentrated nutritional medicinals that have been used in the direst of medical circumstances…The core of the Natural Allopathic protocol redefines the way emergency room and intensive care should be practiced on Ebola patients with proven fast-acting, safe, concentrated and mostly injectable nutritional medicines. If the Ebola infection truly gets out of hand, it is comforting for parents to know that they can legally administer these same medicinals if infected people are treated at home. All of the Natural Allopathic Medicines can be also taken orally or used transdermally (topically) to almost the same effect if treatment is started early enough.

How Can Supplement Makers Do This?

The ability of supplement manufacturers to claim health benefits for their products, and mostly get away with it, is a result of congressional action in passing the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), which essentially deregulated these products.

Twenty years later, the supplement industry is deeply divided between responsible and irresponsible manufacturers, both allowed by law.

As the president and CEO of one supplement company puts it,

The industry of 1994, roughly $8 billion in sales, has experienced compounded double-digit growth every year since DSHEA became law…DSHEA opened the door to growth, innovation, new science, new discovery and a nation of wanting consumers enchanted with the thought that there are natural solutions to their individual health needs…20 years later, it’s time to take a hard look at what DSHEA doesn’t provide to the industry today. The barrier to entry into this industry continues to have no hurdles; DSHEA does not define the boundaries of consumer trust… The generations of today, and the generations of tomorrow will demand transparency, they will demand efficacy, and they will demand quality and safety from all of us.

Clearly, they aren’t getting that now.

Other Connections to Food Politics

Chocolate

Politico writes:

EBOLA THREATENS WORLD’S CHOCOLATE SUPPLY:  Ivory Coast, the world’s largest producer of cacao, the raw ingredient in M&Ms, Butterfingers and Snickers Bars, has shut down its borders with Liberia and Guinea, putting a major crimp on the workforce needed to pick the beans that end up in chocolate bars and other treats just as the harvest season begins… the outbreak already could raise prices…Prices on cocoa futures jumped from their normal trading range of $2,000 to $2,700 per ton, to as high as $3,400 in September over concerns about the spread of Ebola to Côte D’Ivoire.

Food safety

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler points out that Ebola started out as a foodborne illness.    Its most likely source was infected bushmeat that transferred the virus to human handlers.

Following standard food safety procedures is always a good idea while hoping that health officials get this epidemic under control.

 

Sep 2 2014

Industrial hemp: “squishy” legalities. But will it replace kale?

Section 7606 of the 2014 Farm Bill says that notwithstanding the Controlled Substances Act, The Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, and other laws that govern the cultivation of marijuana, it is now OK for state agriculture departments and universities to grow “industrial” hemp for research purposes.

Industrial hemp, the Farm Bill says, means “the plant Cannabis sativa L…with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol [THC] concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.”

To put this in context: the average THC potency of domestically grown recreational hemp  (a.k.a. marijuana) is about 6 percent, but can go much higher.

With so little THC in industrial hemp, why would anyone want to bother with it?   Textiles of course, but also medical purposes and dietary supplements.

Even a little THC, apparently, goes a long way.

The New York Times reports that companies are growing industrial hemp to make hemp oil as a treatment for epilepsy.

On the legalities of hemp oil, The Times explains that the

Drug Enforcement Administration is offering few clues, insisting in public statements that while it is willing to allow marijuana sales in states that have legalized the drug, it might step in if growers try to sell beyond state borders…Any chemical that comes from the plant is still a controlled substance…When we get into hemp, it gets a little squishy, but it still is illegal.

Squishy?  Growing and using industrial or recreational hemp is illegal in America except in states that have made hemp legal or quasi-legal.

For example, New York State recently passed a hemp bill that would set up pilot programs for the production of industrial hemp.

At least one company is growing hemp in Colorado for use in dietary supplements.   At a trade show last year, it displayed US Hemp Oil promoted for its content of CBD—cannabidiol, a non-narcotic fraction of the hemp plant.

The company insists that CBD is a legal ingredient of dietary supplements.

Hemp, it argues, is a vegetable:

The pure oil is considered GRAS [generally recognized as safe]. Under the United States Uniform Tariff Code they tax and code hemp as a vegetable. I don’t know anything that’s a vegetable that isn’t GRAS. When we import it, it is always considered a vegetable, so that’s what we use in our declaratory actions…in March of last year Canadian company Abattis announced plans to bring a CBD-infused kombucha drink to market.

However and whether CBD works for medical purposes, everyone expects industrial hemp to be a huge cash crop for its textile and health food uses.

This is especially a boon for Kentucky, and it’s no coincidence that Kentucky Republican Senator Mitch McConnell spearheaded the hemp provision through the Farm Bill.

The boon-for-Kentucky Website provides a long list of potential applications for industrial hemp, ranging from textiles to cosmetics to auto parts.

Proponents of CBD provide an even longer list of diseases for which industrial hemp’s CBD is a treatment option.  There isn’t much research on the physiological effects of CBD.  This makes industrial hemp perfect as a dietary supplements.  It might do something.  That’s all you need for supplement marketing.

The legal battles will be fun to watch.  Stay tuned.

In the meantime, there is hemp cereal—organic of course.  Enjoy!

 

 

 

Mar 11 2014

Betting on Herbalife and hedging the bet

Skeptic of the value of dietary supplements that I am, I cannot help feeling sorry for Herbalife.

The company sells protein shakes and snacks, vitamins and dietary supplements, and energy and fitness drinks which, it says, “combined with healthy eating and exercise, can help you lead a healthy, active life.”

Yes indeed, healthy eating and exercise will do that for you every time.

But Herbalife has become the victim of a bizarre hedge fund bet and its consequences.

In what is one of the most blatant conflicts of interest besetting a food product, a hedge fund manager, William Ackman, made a billion dollar “short” bet that Herbalife’s stock would fall.

When the stock did not do so immediately, Mr. Ackman set out to destroy the company’s reputation to force its stock down.

He even got members of Congress, including Senator Edward Markey (Dem-Massachusetts) to call for an investigation of the company’s marketing practices, an action that caused a 14-point drop in the stock.

This decidedly unsavory story was the subject of a New York Times investigative report yesterday: “Staking $1 Billion That Herbalife Will Fail, Then Lobbying to Bring It Down.”

The company has grown into a global powerhouse, with a worldwide team of more than three million so-called members and distributors who operate as independent contractors through a system that rewards many of them not only based on actual sales, but also on their ability to recruit more distributors.

The sales tactic, popular with many nutritional supplement companies, has frequently been the target of criticism. In 1986, California authorities issued an order prohibiting Herbalife from making false claims about the weight-loss powers of its nutritional drinks.

Herbalife reported sales of $4 billion in 2012 and is sold in more than 90 countries by distributors who earn profits on product sales and additional commissions from a “multi-level marketing” compensation structure.

Ackman argues that this is a pyramid scheme that particularly disadvantages Hispanic distributors and customers.  Other hedge funds disagree and have placed “long” bets on Herbalife.

This is food politics at a breathtaking level of income.  The Times story is well worth a look.

Jan 30 2014

Supplement infographic: most users are healthy to begin with

I love this new graphic from the Council for Responsible Nutrition, the trade association for the dietary supplement industry.

My favorite: “Supplement consumers are more likely to engage in other healthy habits than non-consumers.”

This is delightfully ambiguous.  Does it mean: Supplements make consumers healthier?

Or does it mean: consumers who are healthy to begin with are the ones who take supplements?

I vote for the latter.  That’s why the great majority of studies of supplements and health show no effect.  Study subjects are already healthy and don’t need them.

The Dietary Supplement Consumer: The 5 W’s answered about the more than two-thirds of U.S. adults taking dietary supplements, according to the most recent annual survey conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs on behalf of the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN).�

 

 

Jan 15 2014

The FDA clarifies: Is your drink a supplement or a food?

By an act of Congress, dietary supplements are regulated less strictly than conventional foods, so much so that some beverage manufacturers would much prefer to have their products labeled as dietary supplements than foods, energy shots, for example.

Under the law, the FDA pretty much has to keep hands off of supplements, except when something egregious happens, like people getting sick or dying.

The FDA is now trying to clarify the difference between beverages that are supplements and those that are drugs.  It just issued:

These documents, however, are guidance.  The are not regulations:

This guidance represents the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) current thinking on this topic.  It does not create or confer any rights for or on any person and does not operate to bind FDA or the public.  You may use an alternative approach if the approach satisfies the requirements of the applicable statutes and regulations.

Why is FDA doing this?  I’m guessing for two reasons.

1.  The weird ingredients in energy drinks:

We have observed an increase in the marketing of liquid products with a wide array of ingredients and intended uses.  Some of these products are marketed as dietary supplements, and others as conventional foods. 

We have seen a growth in the marketplace of beverages and other conventional foods that contain novel substances, such as added botanical ingredients or their extracts.  Some of these substances have not previously been used in conventional foods and may be unapproved food additives.

2.  The high caffeine levels in those drinks.

Other substances that have been present in the food supply for many years are now being added to beverages and other conventional foods at levels in excess of their traditional use levels, or in new beverages or other conventional foods.  This trend raises questions regarding whether these new uses are unapproved food additive uses.

Caffeine is GRAS (generally recognized as safe) at the levels added to soft drinks.

But the levels in energy drinks are so much higher that the FDA has questions about whether GRAS applies to them.

These guidance documents are open for comment.  If you care about such issues, weigh in now.

Dec 23 2013

Alas, the bad news on dietary supplements continues

Over the weekend, the New York Times carried a front-page story about liver damage caused by an herbal supplement advertised as a “fat burner.”

It pointed out that as a result of a 1994 act of Congress, such products are virtually unregulated.  No federal agency pays much attention to their contents or claims, and Congress only lets the FDA take action against them after they are found to be harmful.

Fortunately, vitamin and mineral supplements rarely cause harm.  But the question of whether they do any good continues to trouble researchers.   As NutraIngredients_USA summarizes the latest rounds of research,

Stop wasting money on supplements, say physicians. Stop trying to position supplements as cures for disease, say industry groups.  An editorial panel of medical doctors (MDs) says the case is now closed for multivitamins: they don’t help well-nourished adults. But leading trade associations have defended the safety and efficacy of the products, calling the editorial, ‘close-minded, ‘one-sided’ and ‘overblown.’

The article refers to studies published in a recent issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.  These showed that multivitamin supplements did nothing to prevent heart attacks or cancer, or improve cognitive function.

This led to an editorial entitled:

Its conclusion: Most multivitamin supplements do no good; some may do harm.  If you are healthy, you don’t need them.

Not that this will stop anyone from taking them….

 

 

Nov 14 2013

The dismal news about supplements. Why bother?

It’s not a good time for the makers of herbal and vitamin supplements.  The better the research, the fewer benefits it shows.

Herbal supplements

DNA testing is demonstrating what many of us have long suspected: herbal supplements are not necessarily what they say they are.

As the New York Times reports, a recent study shows that many products purporting to be herbal supplements, actually contain rice, corn, or wheat (gluten-sensitive folks beware):

I would feel sorry for supplement manufacturers, if they hadn’t brought this on themselves.

First, they lobbied to get Congress to pass the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA).  This lets them advertise the benefits of supplements without much in the way of scientific substantiation.  It also excused the FDA from doing much regulation.

But DSHEA also required research.  Oops.   Although the point of asking for research was to demonstrate the benefits of supplements, things haven’t worked out that way.  Most of the research shows no benefit and, sometimes, harm.

And investigations like this one show what many have long suspected.  Without federal oversight, some supplement manufacturers will do whatever they can get away with.

Fortunately, rice substituted for St. John’s Wort is harmless and hardly matters, since St. John’s Wort doesn’t seem to do much anyway.

Vitamin Supplements

The latest review of the benefits—or lack thereof—of vitamin supplements for prevention of heart disease or cancer comes to cautious conclusions.

Limited evidence supports any benefit from vitamin and mineral supplementation for the prevention of cancer or CVD. Two trials found a small, borderline-significant benefit from multivitamin supplements on cancer in men only and no effect on CVD.

Borderline significance?  Not impressive.

The Natural Products Association, which represents supplement makers, issued a response:

  • Multivitamin supplements should not be expected, without the combination of a healthy lifestyle, to prevent chronic disease.
  • Dietary supplements are used by more than 150 million Americans on a daily basis. Research has shown that when taken in combination with other healthy lifestyle practices, such as consuming a wholesome diet and exercising regularly, people can benefit from dietary supplements.

Translation: if you consume a wholesome diet and exercise regularly, you really don’t need supplements.  And if you are not doing those things, supplements won’t do any good.

As for the 150 million Americans who take supplements: the ones I know tell me that they don’t care what the science says; they feel better when they take the pills.

Let’s hear it for placebo effects!

May 13 2013

FDA is on the job: health claims

The FDA has sent a warning letter to a supplement manufacturer, Europharma, to cease and desist making health claims for several of its products.  The company, says the FDA, is promoting these products

for conditions that cause the products to be drugs under section 201(g)(1)(B) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act…because they are intended for use in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease.

For example:
  • The Calm Kids web page links to articles that say “In clinical trials of children with ADD, phosphatidylserine was able to improve attention and reduce symptoms. In fact, 11 of 18 children receiving phosphatidylserine had no further ADD symptoms at all.”
  • The CholestCaps web page links to an article that says “Indian Gooseberry [ingredient in CholestCaps formula]…reduces symptoms of allergies, particularly hay fever [. . .].” and “Indian Gooseberry has proven beneficial in all the disease conditions tested so far [. . .].”
  • The CuraMed web page links to articles that say “Today, we extract curcumin [primary ingredient in CuraMed] from turmeric to use as a natural medicine for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, and many other chronic diseases.”

What’s interesting about this is that the focus is on what the articles say, not what is stated on the website.  This is a new approach for FDA and it will be interesting to see if it works.

According to FoodNavigator.com, Europharma is filing objections, is not admitting wrongdoing, but has removed links to the offending literature from its website.

Progress?

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