CRN takes issue with how Pew reported adverse event finding in recent supplement survey

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

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Related tags Supplements Nutrition Safety Regulation

A new Pew survey on dietary supplements found that 1 in 8 consumers said they or a family member had experienced an adverse event, a finding which has been criticized as a faulty statistic.

The results of the survey of 1,000 Americans were released yesterday by Pew Charitable Trusts. The survey looked at dietary supplement usage and consumers’ attitudes toward and knowledge of the laws that regulate the category.

Steve Mister, president and executive director of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, said CRN had been given a preview of the results by Pew representatives at a recent board meeting.  Mister said that while the survey was generally well done and CRN supported many of the findings, the adverse event question was one that stuck out immediately.

Wording of question skews results

The issue, Mister said, was with how the question was worded. It asked whether the respondent or a family member, had experienced a serious side effect from using a dietary supplement.

“If we assume that each respondent might have a spouse, two children and two parents, then we’re not talking about a universe of 1,000 people.  We’re talking about as many as 6,000,”​ Mister told NutraIngredients-USA.

“Our board members said, wait, you’ve got to redo the math. It’s not 1 in 8, then, which would be 12% of respondents. It’s more like 2% of respondents,”​ he said.

Mister also said that what Pew characterized as a serious side effect for the purposes of the survey is different from what is called a serious adverse event under the adverse event reporting law. Pew cast a much wider net, Mister said.

“So what we’re concerned about is that this will get reported as 12% of users suffering serious adverse events under that law,”​ he said.

Mister said the survey was helpful in understanding more about consumers’ attitudes toward the products.

Mandatory product listing

The Pew survey found strong support for a mandatory product listing for supplements.  As many as 95% of respondents said they support such a listing.  The support was strong even among respondents who said they view government regulations are unnecessary and harm the economy, with 87% of that group saying they support the change.

“A mandatory listing is something we support, too,”​ Mister said. “We have worked with Pew on a number of things like getting more funding for FDA.”

Mister said the survey also laid bare how little consumers understood about the Dietary Supplement Health and Eduction Act (DSHEA), the overarching regulation that governs the dietary supplement industry.  Consumers were confused about whether FDA tests products before they go to market and whether manufacturers must demonstrate the safety of their products up front, for example.

Bearing that in mind, Mister said he was unsure of the value of asking consumers about how the law ought to be changed.

“If the public doesn’t really understand how the regulation functions are they in a position to advise on how to change it?”​ he asked.

Range of view on safety

Pew asked respondents about their view of different supplement categories.  The organization broke supplements down into weight loss, sexual benefits, exercise performance, and those meant for ‘dietary’ benefits, by which it meant vitamins, minerals, fish oil, melatonin, or herbs and botanicals.  

Weight loss products were seen as the riskiest category, with 74% saying the products were 'not too' or 'not at all' safe.  For sexual products, 60% ticked those boxes.  

Sports supplements fell in between, while a large majority of respondents found the ‘dietary benefits’ supplements to be safe, with 85% saying they are 'extremely' or 'pretty' safe.

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