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December 2011: Dietary Supplements and Claims

The article “Snake Oil or Solid Science?” by Gabriela Pacheco, RD, LD, SNS, published in the December 2011 issue of School Nutrition, helps readers to decipher the truth behind advertised nutrition and health claims related to foods and beverages. It’s also important to learn more about dietary supplements.

School nutrition professionals should be concerned about these both personally and professionally. In this world of airbrushed top-models and NBA superstars, teens are especially susceptible to nutrition misinformation and false health claims, and they can easily fall into the trap of taking a dietary supplement to lose or gain weight quickly. Although it may not be your “job” to be a resource on this topic, if a student confides in you or asks for your expertise, it’s important that you know where to refer him or her for credible information.

Dietary supplements fall into a special category under the general umbrella of “foods,” not drugs, as stipulated by the DSHEA (Dietary Supplement Health Education Act of 1994). These supplements are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but in a different process than other foods and drugs. In fact, packages are required to bear an advisory notice about any manufacturer’s health claims: “This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” But given that manufacturers are protected under the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech, even inaccurate or misleading claims may be included on packaging, as long as the advisory is included.

One thing to cast a skeptical eye toward is the percentage claim that may be used for certain types of substances that do not currently have an established Daily Value. For example, you may see a claim for "40% omega-3 fatty acids, 10 mg per capsule" or "twice the omega-3 fatty acids per capsule (80 mg) as in 100 mg of menhaden oil (40 mg).” Without established standards, such as the Daily Value measure, this information is meaningless.

While many of these substances are advertising their ability to improve your health, it’s important to be aware that some can cause serious medical complications. High amounts of certain vitamins, minerals and other “natural” substances can be toxic. Did you know that St. John’s Wort can have potentially dangerous interactions with a number of prescription drugs, including antidepressants, oral contraceptives and anti-seizure medicines? Other supplements, such as Willow Bark, Comfrey, Kava and Ephedra also can be more damaging than helpful in certain circumstances.

Always be sure to discuss dietary supplements with a health care professional first. Guard against treating a self-diagnosed condition with a “natural” remedy without professional expertise. If your doctor or practitioner doesn’t know the answer about a particular supplement, he or she will find out more, putting his or her own reputation in the hands of a trusted source of information.

There are several consumer groups that are targeted by manufacturers using false and misleading advertising campaigns. These include those who are overweight and looking for a quick, “magic bullet” solution, as well as those with serious health conditions that have no cure (cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, arthritis). Again, remember to seek the advice of a trained medical professional for safe and beneficial treatments. In fact, many insurance companies, including Medicaid, will pay for a consultation with a registered dietitian to prevent the future consequences of obesity, such as diabetes and its long-term effects. When it comes to good health, always focus on prevention rather than treatment!