What Supplements Are Important To Take & What Nutrients Not To Take
Bad Supplements: A Savvy Consumer’s Guide
How to protect yourself from false claims, find verified products, report false advertising, and try to get your money back.
By Joseph Brownstein
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Dietary supplements have proven both controversial and popular, drawing criticism for uneven quality and overblown claims of effectiveness. At the same time, supplements accounted for .5 billion in sales in 2012, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Questions abound over poor regulation of the supplement industry. The attorney general for the state of New York garnered headlines when he revealed the first steps in an investigation into the industry. This came after a series of tests found labeled ingredients missing and a number of other, potentially dangerous ingredients present in some herbal supplements.
On February 3, the New York State Attorney General’s office sent letters to GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart, asking them to stop selling certain supplements the investigation found to be problematic.
“This investigation makes one thing abundantly clear: the old adage ‘buyer beware’ may be especially true for consumers of herbal supplements,” says Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman in a statement. He notes that the DNA test results were consistent with recurring safety questions the herbal supplement industry faces. And, he points out, mislabeling, contamination, and false advertising are not only illegal but also put New York families at unacceptable risk — particularly for people who are allergic to hidden ingredients.
Schneiderman stated, “At the end of the day, American corporations must step up to the plate and ensure that their customers are getting what they pay for, especially when it involves promises of good health.”
Getting Your Money Back for Faulty Supplements
Consumers who feel they’ve been defrauded on a supplement can attempt a number of remedies, although it’s not clear that any will result in a quick cash refund.
Jan Bellamy, an attorney in the Tallahassee area of Florida, frequently writes about the intersection of the law and natural health practices. She explains that for improper labeling or ingredient problems, consumers should contact the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) MedWatch program. If you have a bad reaction after taking a supplement, you should contact both the FDA and your healthcare provider to report it.
Meanwhile, problems with how a supplement is being advertised should be reported to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC has jurisdiction over false advertising.
“That is just going to report the problem,” says Bellamy. “If you want your money back, it depends on how long you’ve had the supplement.” Many companies, she says, offer a 30-day money-back guarantee.
Barring that, Bellamy says, you have the option of pursuing legal action against the company by becoming a part of a class action lawsuit. Searching for “supplements” online at a website like Top Class Actions may allow you to get a partial refund — depending on the result of the investigation. While a consumer could approach a lawyer, Bellamy says, it is probably not worthwhile for an individual case.
Ensuring the Best Supplement Quality
While going after a company after the fact may be problematic, supplement consumers can take steps when purchasing pills to avoid these types of problems — depending on the particular supplement they need.
“If [consumers] don’t know it by now, I think the biggest issue is the quality issue,” says , pharmacy clinical manager for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). “You can’t guarantee that what’s on the label is really in the bottle, and that’s the most concerning thing. Are you really getting what you’re paying for?”
Dr. Erush was part of a committee at CHOP that decided to remove all supplements from the formulary for which they could not guarantee the contents. Many supplements are now entirely unavailable to patients there.
RELATED: Before and After: When Supplements Get Dangerous
Independent organizations, such as the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), verify ingredients in supplements, which are then labeled with a stamp from the organization. But, Erush noted, a company may have some products verified by the organization while others are not.
“I can’t say thisbrandis always fine or thisproductis always fine,” says Erush.
But in the meantime, the label does provide some aid for consumers who need a supplement.
“That’s probably the best and the easiest way for the public to determine if the product is of quality,” says Erush.
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