NPA: Consumer Reports supplements probe is insulting to consumers

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

John Shaw: 'The legitimate supplement industry which we represent wants the criminals selling these illegal drugs out of business'
John Shaw: 'The legitimate supplement industry which we represent wants the criminals selling these illegal drugs out of business'

Related tags Nutrition

A probe into dietary supplements published in the September 2012 edition of Consumer Reports misleads and insults consumers and smears the industry, claims the Natural Products Association (NPA).

In the article, entitled, ‘Vitamins & Supplements, 10 dangers that may surprise you’​, Consumer Reports warns shoppers about overdosing - and choking - on vitamins, supplements spiked with prescription drugs, inadequate warning labels about drug interactions and risky side effects.

It also questions the efficacy of omega-3s, calcium and antioxidants, and says data shows supplements were associated with 115 deaths and 2,100 hospitalizations between 2007 and spring 2012 (although it acknowledges that these figures are dwarfed by the number of problems reported about prescription medications over the same period).

Headings in the article include: ‘Some supplements are really prescription drugs’ ​and ‘None are proven to cure major diseases’.

It also features a photograph of Dr Pieter Cohen, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and an internist at Cambridge Health Alliance, with the caption: ‘Complications? Pieter Cohen with a patient who had a heart attack while on supplements’.

Legitimate players want authorities to crack down on criminals selling drugs masqerading as supplements

But the probe, which comes hot on the heels of an article​ in the Chicago Tribune alleging the industry is dogged by “serious and widespread” ​manufacturing problems, “distorts the facts with just another smear campaign”, ​claimed NPA executive director and CEO John Shaw,

Supplements, he observed, are not intended to ‘cure major diseases’, while products containing prescription drugs are illegal.  

“Supplements are foods, not drugs. If a product makes disease claims or includes a drug, then it’s not a supplement.”

But rogue elements in the trade must be brought to justice, he agreed: “The legitimate supplement industry who we represent wants the criminals selling these illegal drugs out of business.”

You can choke on a supplement (and anything else you swallow as well)

As for safety, he did not provide figures to challenge those presented in the CR article, but said: “Data from the government shows that supplements have an excellent safety record, especially considering the millions of supplements sold annually.”

Meanwhile, figures about the number of reports received by the FDA about choking on supplements (900 in five years) were provided without any context, he added.

“Someone could choke anytime swallowing anything, not just supplements. This is another example of fear-mongering by Consumer Reports. Using this issue as an argument against taking supplements is insulting to consumers.”

Welch: Article relies on disputed and inaccurate studies

Pieter Cohen: 'Although it’s a painful truth for the industry to hear, healthy consumers don’t need supplements.'

Senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs Dr. Cara Welch also took issue with the sections of the article disputing the efficacy of supplements, which she claimed relied on “disputed and inaccurate studies to draw the wrong conclusions.

“For example, the American Heart Association has recommended a diet high in omega-3s and supplementation for those who cannot get enough from their diet. In addition, the federal government itself has approved health claims for supplements, such as associating vitamin D and calcium intake with a reduced risk of osteoporosis.”

In an ideal world, we can get all the nutrients we need from a healthy balanced diet, she added. But we don’t live in an ideal world: “Research shows that supplements can address nutritional deficiencies and improve overall health.

“Getting an adequate amount of nutrition from the diet is ideal, but unfortunately, many Americans are not getting the nutrients they need from the foods they eat.”

Cohen: Healthy consumers don’t need supplements

However, Dr Cohen told NutraIngredients-USA he thought Consumer Reports made many valid points, adding: "Although it’s a painful truth for the industry to hear, healthy consumers don’t need supplements. 

"There is no evidence that a healthy person would benefit from obtaining a nutrient from a supplement rather than food.

"I agree with Consumer Reports that consumers should obtain their nutrients from food, and there’s no need for 'extra insurance' from supplements – in fact, for many consumers, supplements might do more harm than good."

Click on the link below to read the Consumer Reports article.


Vitamins-and-Supplements-10-dangers-that-may-surprise-you.pdf 5.43 MB

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Apples and oranges

Posted by Dr. G. L. Cote,

The comments by defenders of supplements would be valid if supplements were occupying the same market niche as pharmaceuticals. However, supplements are not intended to replace or substitute for pharmaceuticals. They are taken voluntarily by consumers who usually have no need for them and are only responding to ads which imply they will treat deficiencies or diseases. Since there is usually little or no need for supplements in a healthy diet, one should, as CU states, err on the side of caution.

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Balance Vs. One-Sided Hype

Posted by Rolf,

What is lacking in this release by Consumer Reports is balance. To attain the right perspective about the dangers of supplements, a balanced account needs to be presented, rather than an one-sided, hyperbolic rant such as this one.

Just like about anything else, risks are a relative construct. To understand how risky, or dangerous, something is, it has to be placed in the proper relation to other similar risks.

Supplements are consumed by a significant segment of people in the U.S. This is analogously to the situation with the use of pharmaceutical medications and over-the-counter drugs.

Which practice, taking drugs or supplements, is more dangerous?

According to the research data, exceptionally few people die from consuming nutritional supplements every year, COMPARED TO over 100,000 people who die each and every year from the use of pharmaceutical drugs. (Aspirin alone kills more people every year than supplements).

Where should the priority be for (adequate) regulation? What “medical/health care product” should you be truly worried about?

Facts versus hype...

I found that most reports on the so-called “dangers of supplements” amount to little more than scaremongering. It's frequently done out of a political-ideological incentive. Done to mislead rather than to educate.

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