Weekly Comment

Sex, pills and bad information

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Dietary supplements, Nutrition, Consumer

The Internet is offering a wealth of information to more and more
people, but also an avenue for irresponsible businesses to exploit
consumer health concerns.

Despite the differing regulations in the US, the EU and elsewhere concerning dietary supplements and food with health claims, the Internet remains a grey area, and a medium to exploit those with personal problems that often push the consumer to favour anonymity.

In such a climate, spending on consumer education should be a priority for both industry and regulators so that consumers can make the right choices concerning the supplement or diet that is right for them.

The point was highlighted last week when the FDA moved to caution consumers over certain products aimed at people with sexual health problems after analysing 17 dietary supplements marketed on the Internet to treat erectile dysfunction and enhance sexual performance in men.

I don't know if these are the same products that are advertised in e-mails that regularly clutter up my inbox, but it is good to know that somewhere out there, they are being policed.

Without wishing to imply that all products marketed online are, by definition, questionable, I am sure I am not alone in my scepticism over those that offer me all kinds of benefits ranging from exceptional 'growth' that results in the need for larger underpants, to 'guaranteeing' my girlfriend purrs for a week!

Wherever and however they are sold, products making claims that are not based on science and that they do not live up to the claims they make give the rest of the dietary supplements industry a bad name.

And the small subset of these that are sold online prey on those in society who prefer the anonymity of the Internet to the perceived embarrassment of face-to-face contact.

In the event, the FDA's aim does not seem to have been so much testing the validity of the claims made by the products as, even more worryingly, the detection of active ingredients in seven of them that were "similar or identical"​ to some found in prescription drugs.

The supplements industry has always distanced itself from products containing drugs, maintaining that they are NOT supplements but are merely masquerading as such.

The majority of dietary supplements adhere to the strict quality standards demanded by regulators and consumers, and rogue products not only lay the industry and its regulatory framework open to criticism, but may also pose a serious threat to consumer health.

So the FDA is to be applauded for the investigation and communication of the findings to the public, and the dietary supplements industry in the US too for such a rapid and loud welcome of the FDA's policing of these rogue products.

But the problem is not exclusive to the US, nor is it limited to sexual health products.

This year so-called dietary supplements were and still are being marketed on the Internet as offering protection from avian flu.

Back in February, Edzard Ernst, professor of complimentary medicine at the University of Exeter, said that there was no scientific evidence to support the claims from natural products available on the Internet to protect against avian flu.

And it is not even guaranteed that the real content of the supplements is actually listed on the label.

Yet again the dietary supplements industry was responsible and quick to distance itself from such products with various industry organisations voicing caution over such claims associated with these products.

Shutting down or silencing such websites is not easy, and an easier solution must surely be to educate and caution consumers about such products.

This involves following the current course of action by both regulators and the industry itself: both must be seen and heard publicly to be cleaning up these rogue products that, at best, undermine the industry and, at worst, put lives of consumers at risk.

This will undoubtedly cost industry and regulators to run educational campaigns, but the rewards will be a consumer base with a higher level of understanding of the real benefits of specific supplements and a higher level of trust in the products themselves.

And by getting rid of such products maybe my inbox will be cleaner too.

Stephen Daniells is the Food Science Reporter for NutraIngredients.com and NutraIngredients-USA.com. He has a PhD in Chemistry from Queen's University Belfast and has worked in research in the Netherlands and France.

If you would like to comment on this article please contact Stephen Daniells​.

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