I was surprised to get this e-mail from a reader:
Surely, Dr. Hall, the public mania for nutritional supplements is baseless. All the alleged nutrients in supplements are contained in the food we eat. And what governmental agency has oversight responsibility regarding the production of these so-call nutritional supplements? Even if one believes that such pills have value, how can the consumer be assured that the product actually contains what the label signifies? I have yet to find a comment on this subject on your otherwise informative website.
My co-bloggers and I have addressed these issues repeatedly. Peter Lipson covered DSHEA (The Diet Supplement Health and Education Act) nicely. It’s all been said before, but perhaps it needs to be said again; and maybe by writing this post I can make it easier for new readers to find the information.
BACKGROUND: A BAD, BAD LAW
One of the themes of this blog has been how, over the last couple of decades, the law has been coopted by forces supporting “complementary and alternative” medicine (CAM) in order to lend legitimacy to unscientific and even pseudoscientific medical nonsense. Whether it be $120 million a year being spent for the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) or attempts to insert provisions mandating that insurers in the government health care co-ops that would have been created by President Obama’s recent health care reform initiative (which at the moment seems to be pining for the fjords, so to speak), the forces who do not want pesky things like regulation to interfere with their selling of pseudoscience have been very successful. Arguably the crown jewel of their legislative victories came in 1994, when the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) was passed. Demonstrating that pseudoscience is a bipartisan affair, the DSHEA was passed, thanks to a big push from the man who is arguably the most powerful supporter of quackery in government and the man most responsible for the creation of the abomination that is NCCAM, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), along with his partner in woo, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT). It should be noted that Harkin happens to be the recipient of large contributions from supplement manufacturer Herbalife, demonstrating that big pharma isn’t the only industry that can buy legislation related to health.
Dr. Lipson has discussed the DSHEA before (calling it, in his own inimitable fashion, a “travesty of a mockery of a sham“) as has a certain friend of mine. Suffice it to say that the DSHEA of 1994 is a very bad law. One thing it does is to make a distinction between food and medicine. While on its surface this is a reasonable distinction (after all, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to hold food to the same sorts of standards to which drugs are held), as implemented by the DSHEA this distinction has a pernicious effect in that it allows manufacturers to label all sorts of botanicals, many of which with pharmacological activity, as “supplements,” and supplements, being defined as food and not medicine, do not require prior approval by the FDA before marketing:
I’ll start with a confession. I used to do something irrational. I used to take a daily multivitamin, not because I thought there was good scientific evidence to support the practice, but for psychotherapy. I tried to eat a healthy diet and worried about it. By taking a pill, I could stop worrying.
Then I found out that higher intake of vitamin A was associated with an increased risk of hip fractures in postmenopausal women like me, and I stopped. (High doses of vitamin A also cause births defects and are contraindicated in pregnancy.) Now I only take supplemental calcium and vitamin D, not on general principles but because of personal risk factors.
We’re being bombarded by advice to take vitamins and various other supplements. Health gurus like Andrew Weil recommend that everyone take vitamins (which they just happen to sell). The orthomolecular followers of Linus Pauling want us to take megadoses of vitamins. Ray Kurzweil tells us we should take vitamins to make us live longer; he takes 250 vitamin and supplement pills a day and thinks he will live forever. (You can read about his ideas in his book Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever.) Who should we believe? (more…)