Consumer Reports (CR) and its Health Newsletter provide sound advice about nutrition and medicine, with one exception: their recommendations concerning alternative therapies, especially dietary supplements. With regard to dietary supplements, part of the problem is the failure of CR to make a distinction between authentic dietary supplements, such as multivitamins and minerals, and non-vitamin, non-mineral medicinal products. For example, the September 2010 issue of CR contains a table listing “Eleven supplements to consider”. The list includes calcium and vitamin D supplements, and St. John’s wort and Pygeum herbals.
The nomenclatural confusion was created by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), which was termed “The Snake Oil Protection Act” by the New York Times. DSHEA, which was passed after a massive lobbying campaign by industry, arbitrarily designated herbals and other traditional medicinal products as dietary supplements. Herbals are used worldwide as medicines and in Europe some are available by prescription only.
The purpose of the Act was to prevent the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from effectively regulating those products, and it succeeded brilliantly. Sales of dietary supplements rose from $4 billion annually in 1994 to $28 billion in 2007, and reports of severe adverse events caused by those products rose in parallel (1). Another consequence of DSHEA is that designating herbals as dietary supplements misleads consumers about their medicinal nature and conceals their potential for causing severe adverse effects.
The selling points for herbals are that as “natural” products they are safer and gentler than the powerful “foreign” chemicals in purified medications, and they possess unique qualities not found in conventional medications. Dr. Varro Tyler, an expert in the medicinal use of plants, termed those unfounded claims “paraherbalism”, and described herbals as “crude drugs of vegetable origin” (2). In reality, the active ingredients of plants are chemicals that are similar or identical to conventional medications, and many of the latter were first identified in plant extracts. It is no more “natural” to swallow dozens of chemicals in a plant extract than to ingest a single purified chemical – a drug is a drug. Before discussing CR’s advice about supplements, it is necessary to consider briefly basic differences between herbals and conventional medications.