by Marion Nestle
May 28 2010

Dismal reports on dietary supplements

Dietary supplements are in trouble these days.  For one thing, it’s really hard to demonstrate that they do any good.  For another, these products are poorly regulated.  Some recent examples:

  • Gingko biloba supplements don’t improve cognitive function in the elderly.
  • St. Johns Wort supplements don’t improve irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Most supplements do not improve mortality, except maybe glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate which are associated with a slight unexplained improvement in this particular review.
  • Most supplements are contaminated with toxic heavy metals says a GAO report with one of this agency’s typically inimitable titles: Herbal Dietary Supplements: Examples of Deceptive or Questionable Marketing Practices and Potentially Questionable Advice.

The New York Times account of the GAO report quotes Steve Mister, president of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, the supplement industry trade association, unsurprised by this finding.  Heavy metals, he said, are routinely found in soil and plants: “I don’t think this should be of concern to consumers.”

Oh great.  Glad he thinks so.  I’d be happier if we had a bit more regulation of these products.

  • Jeremy

    I am all for changes in making sure things are safe and effective, but our regulated system is potentially flawed because of how many corporate hands are in it. I am hoping that this is not always the case, but I smell Big Pharma hands in this one.

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  • Thanks for the post. When I wrote my book, Feed Your Head, my editor wanted me to include a section about supplements. I did not because if you eat as you write about…a healthy diet, there’s no need for supplements.

    In the past, I did take glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate. I thought it was working for me. Then I stopped. I felt the same. Now I believe it was acting as a placebo.

    Ken Leebow

  • B. Koch

    As supplements-no these herbs do not work. They need to taken as the whole plant, not one compound that has been extracted through an industrial process. I grow and dry, or make infused oils, of various herbs and they are very effective.

  • During my undergraduate years I had a teacher who used to tell us that “vitamins make urine more expensive” and my nutrition analisis during that semester was under the RDA requirements. I was surprise myself because I went to school to learn nutrition…. When I visited Cuba I noticed their “organoponics” small pieces of land few of them destined to “medicine” next to a lab and a local pharmacy. All is farmed with organic techniques without agrochemicals…..none of the major industries are “allowed” in Cuba.
    I am glad of these findings they just make common healthy sense

  • Unfortunately, the FDA is so underfunded, conflicted and corrupt in many ways, I would not trust them to do the regulating. Supplements are great for those who don’t get what they need nutritionally from food (Although I’m all about adding whole nutritious food to the diet, not recommending supplements, I feel there is a need for them.). Most people are deficient in one way or another. However, there is a huge difference in the QUALITY of supplements that are out there. I’m all for getting the “junk” off the market, because it discredits the supplements that are good and make a difference.

  • I trust something that comes from a natural, sustainable source long before I would trust something concocted in a chemical laboratory that has earned FDA approval. The FDA has approved many things that seem to have done more harm than good.

  • Big Pharma works very hard to discredit any natural remedies – it’s competition. I wouldn’t be surprised if they funded most of these studies.

    All I ask is for Big Government to let me “waste” my money on “useless” supplements. Just keep them safe and let me decide if they’re worth it or not. I’ve been “wasting” my money on supplements for 33 years now, and I’m certainly not complaining.

  • Bobby

    Stan, wouldn’t you prefer to have the stated contents actually in the supplements in the quantity and quality as indicated on the label of the product? Because that’s a big problem right now with supplements: what’s inside often bears little resemblance to what you think you are buying.

  • I guess I won’t take any supplements with my chlorinated/fluoridated water in my BPA bottles.

    seriously, how can we avoid everything that’s bad in our diet?

  • I think any fraud in the nutritional industry is purposefully exaggerated in the media (which is owned by Big Food, Big Pharma and Big Agra, after all). It pales in comparison to the fraud that these industries practice ongoingly.

    These corporations want to create doubt in the public’s mind about the value of nutritional supplements because it’s not good for their business. They can’t make any profit off of healthy people.

    Anyone who thinks that these studies are unbiased is naive. Most of them are pure rubbish from a scientific perspective.

  • Bobby

    “Anyone who thinks that these studies are unbiased is naive. Most of them are pure rubbish from a scientific perspective.”

    I assume you are referring to the “scientific” studies proving that supplements are working just like their oversized marketing claims state?

    The biggest pile of pure rubbish that that of the the supplement industry (and make no mistake, it is an industry, unregulated and rolling in cash). I suggest that anyone heartily defending the supplement industry here is being paid to do so by the highly unethical and fraudulent supplement industry.

  • Anthro

    The largest maker of supplements these days IS “big Pharma”.

    Thank you, Bobby, for your sane remarks–I was about to give up.

  • JE

    According to the NYT article only trace amounts of metals were found in the supplements tested – the same amounts, or less, than are found in food.
    From the GAO report:
    “The levels of heavy metals found do not exceed any FDA or Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations governing dietary supplements or their raw ingredients, and FDA and EPA officials did not express concern regarding any immediate negative health consequences from consuming these 40 supplements.”

    The NYT article also stated that supplements do not require pre-market approval. This is true only for supplements sold before 1994. One provision of 1994’s DSHEA requires that any supplement which contains a new dietary ingredient be pre-approved by the FDA. Companies must provide the FDA with evidence of their product’s safety. The FDA’s application of The New Dietary Ingredient regulations has kept many new supplements off the market. The agency has rejected more than two-thirds of NDI applications.

    The FDA and the FTC have the necessary authority to regulate supplements. The problem has always been one of enforcement. To remedy this Senators Hatch and Harkin have introduced The Dietary Supplement Full Implementation and Enforcement Act of 2010:

  • JE

    There are many studies demonstrating the health benefits of dietary supplements. Here is just one:


  • It should be obvious to all the readers here that “Bobby” works for the pharmaceutical industry. Who else would have such contempt for the nutritional supplement “industry” ? I didn’t even know that “industry” was a bad word!

    And to “Anthro” – Big Pharma’s vitamin supplement are everything that Bobby says they are. I would never buy supplements made by a pharmaceutical company.

  • Renee

    I think it is difficult to accept the results of studies like these because human bodies are so individual. Different things work differently in different people –I think this is why there is so much anecdotal evidence for various supplements, but when a study averages everyone together, the results are ambiguous. If you look at medicines prescribed for various mental health issues, most people have to try several before they find one that works for them. I don’t think it’s so surprising that the same thing is true of supplements.

    I do think it’s a shame that our culture doesn’t value preventative medicine enough to create reliable supplements –as someone else said, you can make a lot more money by treating disease than you can by preventing it.

  • Anthro

    I have absolutely NO connection to any “pharma”, big or small. I am 60 years old, very healthy and have never used supplements. That doesn’t prove anything–it’s just an anecdote to counter the widespread idea that the use of supplements equals “wellness”.

    I see lots of fat, unhealthy-looking people buying supplements all the time and I know lots of very healthy physicians who do not use them. Supplements are a huge industry preying on false beliefs of “wellness” that have no science behind them. A single study from a single site proves nothing. The overwhelming body of published (in peer-reviewed journals) finds no need for supplements. You are fare better off to EAT your vitamins in normal quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables. Many doctors will say that a plain old store-brand multi-vitamin is fine if you are worried that you don’t eat well enough, but that is it.

    The idea that good, practical medical advice is somehow a plot by “big Pharma” is just another idea pushed by “Big Supplements”. Pharma has its problems, and these have been enhanced by the ridiculous practice of television advertising, but that hardly negates the many life-saving pharmaceuticals (most of which are now generic and make little money for pharma) available to the medical community. Insulin anyone?

  • Lindy Polizzi

    A vitamin D deficiency in this country is well documented, so to say that people do not need supplements is misguided and erroneous. Fish oil has also proved beneficial for individuals with depression and high blood pressure. I have to agree with Jeremy and Jennifer–that most supplements are at worst dangerous and at best ineffective all sounds like Big Pharma crap. If this is true, why is it that a multi-vitamin supplement (prenatals) are the first prescription given to an extpectant mother by her OB-GYN? Besides, even as a placebo, if the supplement is causing improvement in your mood or overall heatlh, what is the problem so long as it has been tested for purity and has no adverse side effects? And I’ll tell you one thing–the FDA relies on Big Pharma companies to do they’re own testing–do you really think these companies with all that money riding on their product are going to produce honest reports–NO! There was another time in history when the FDA allowed companies to push a product that killed millions–it was called nicotine!! Wake up people! And stop believing that the FDA cares about your safety; all they care about is their bottom line. There are many “experts” in the FDA who headed up companies such as Monsanto and Lily. This is a fact–look it up!

  • Lindy Polizzi

    and the FDA won’t test supplements–the reason: they don’t bring in the big bucks. They can’t be patented. That, my friends is why the FDA won’t evaluate them.

  • Lindy Polizzi

    Lastly, Ken:
    People can eat all the vibrantly colored fruits and vegetables they want and still be under attack by any number of environmental hazards out there–BPA in canned food, PVC off-gassing, PBDEs in your mattress, smog, lead in your tap water (and bottled water–don’t kid yourself), etc . . . . The reason why supplements are needed now more than, say, 100 years ago is because we need the antioxidants in larger doses to fight off these chemicals with which we come into contact everyday (that did not exist 100 years ago). And it doesn’t appear you actually read the study. The study referring to chondroitin and glucosamine use stated that there was a 17% decrease in mortality in those that took it regularly. What? A 17% decrease in mortality isn’t enough for you? I can’t believe you wrote a book when you won’t take time to do research before jumping to some ill-informed opinion. One word for you–baaaahhhhhh. Oh, and look into Dr. Linus Pauling. He took the big three antioxidants in pretty large doses everyday: Beta-Carotene, E and C. He lived till he was 90. There are hoards of other doctors that do the same thing–why? Because it works.

  • Lindy Polizzi

    correction: “is” and “expectant”

  • Lindy Polizzi

    and here is the Linus Pauling website. He lived from 1901-1994. If you’re going to take advice from any nutrition expert, take it from one who lived a long, healthy life