regulating supplements

By Alison Campbell 23/11/2009

Last Friday the Science Media Centre’s media alert included the following:

Dietary supplements such as multivitamin tablets and energy drinks are an increasingly common part of our lives, but should they be?

Concerns have been sparked recently by the availability of ultra-high caffeine energy drinks, the proliferation of people taking (often large) doses of vitamins/minerals every day, and an industry which appears to have very little legislation to guide its behaviour.

I will confess to having drunk caffeine ‘energy’ drinks in the past (despite their – to me, anyway – awful taste) when I’ve been particularly tired & had to keep working. Not because they contained energy – caffeine has a stimulant effect on the nervous system, so the only energy content would be in the sugar added to the drink, & anyway I went for the sugar-free kind! But I stopped when I found that my blood pressure had gone way too high & that my teeth ‘buzzed’ after I’d drunk one. And that was on the basis of one per day & not every day… Certainly caffeine can have negative physiological effects. (I was intrigued to discover that coffee & other caffeinated drinks aren’t recommended for anyone with a tendency to faecal incontinence, for example.) So I’ll be interested to see the briefing notes tomorrow.

But I also wonder how the idea of regulating vitamins & other ‘dietary supplements’ (I’d go as far as to include complementary & alternative medicines (CAM) in this grouping) will go down with the wider community. Certainly the last time the idea was raised, the outcry from various interest groups led to the whole thing being quietly dropped. Which I thought was quite interesting – you’d think there’d be a lot of support for something which would ensure that the pills & potions that fall under the ‘supplement’/CAM umbrella would contain what they are claimed to contain, and in standardised amounts. This would after all be beneficial to the consumer – there are significant safety issues associated with non-standardisation of these supplements, and also with contamination by non-declared heavy metals (or even prescription drugs). So why the fuss?

It’s certainly a discussion we need to have, & hopefully one that will be better addressed by the media than has been the case in the past.

0 Responses to “regulating supplements”

  • I agree “a discussion we need to have.” If I were to write the terms of reference for such a discussion I’d set aside, for the time being, the issue of efficacy and concentrate on safety. I think it reasonable that all supplements etc meet the same standards as any food product in this country.

    • And a case in point would be something like Zicam – a ‘homeopathic’ remedy sold in the US for dealing with the symptoms of colds. It was withdrawn because it caused anosmia (loss of the sense of smell) in a relatively large number of people. The reason? Zicam contained zinc at sufficiently large quantities (from memory I think it was around 4%) to be bioactive, binding with & permanently damaging the olfactory receptors in the nose. But it had escaped regulation & testing because it was labelled ‘homeopathic’…

  • Audio of the Science Media Centre’s dietary supplements briefing has been posted here:
    One interesting thing flagged in the interview – the Food Safety Authority has commissioned Crown Research Institute ESR to do a risk profile investigation into various caffeinated drinks and supplements. Results of that research will apparently be available towards the end of January.

  • kiwiski,

    It’s a fair point and I take it, but I’m under the impression that a lot of them don’t do anything. From that point of view those “treatments” are “safe”.

    I’m not a medic and I’d rather have a medic say this, but my impression that where many of these things are unsafe (aside from under excess dosages or some that are harmful) is that they draw people away from treatments that work, in cases until the condition has gotten bad enough for them to realise their mistake. The trouble with that is that it can mean the condition is too serious to treat easily. If you read Orac and others, you’ll see case examples of this. (He has good examples of “natural” treatments for other largely treatable cancers from memory. The “natural remedies” don’t cause harm in a sense in that they do nothing, they cause harm in this case by taking people away from treatments that do work.)

  • And that’s a point that Ernst & Singh make very forcefully in Trick or Treatment (excellent book!).