Share This Page

HHS findings critical of many weight loss and immune system supplements

| Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, 5:20 p.m.

SAN FRANCISCO — Dozens of weight loss and immune system supplements on the market are illegally labeled and lack the recommended scientific evidence to back up their purported health claims, government investigators warn in a new review of the $20 billion supplement industry.

The report, released Wednesday by the Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general, found that 20 percent of the 127 weight loss and immune-boosting supplements investigators purchased online and in retail stores across the country carried labels that made illegal claims to cure or treat disease.

Some products went so far as to state that the supplements could cure or prevent diabetes or cancer, or that they could help people with HIV or AIDS, which is strictly prohibited under federal law.

Consumers may not just be wasting their money on pills or tablets, but they could be endangering their health if they take a supplement in place of a drug thinking it will have the same effect, the report concluded.

“Consumers rely on a supplement's claims to determine whether the product will provide a desired effect, such as weight loss or immune support,” the report said. “Supplements that make disease claims could mislead consumers into using them as replacements for prescription drugs or other treatments for medical conditions, with potentially dangerous results.”

The market for dietary supplements — which can include anything from Vitamin C tablets to capsules of Echinacea — is a huge one with hundreds of products. The inspector general's investigation focused on one segment that officials said is booming.

Federal regulations do not require the Food & Drug Administration to review supplement companies' scientific evidence for most of their products' purported health benefits before they hit the market.

The Office of Inspector General found that in numerous cases, when companies did submit evidence to back up their health claims, it fell far short of government recommendations.

One company submitted a 30-year-old handwritten college term paper to substantiate its claim, while others included news releases, advertisements and links to Wikipedia or an online dictionary, according to the report.

Overall, the review raises questions about whether the system is allowing companies to mislead consumers, investigators said, and recommended that FDA ramp up its oversight. The report did not name individual brands or products, and also did not estimate the total number of dietary supplements on the market.

In response, the food safety agency said it would consider asking Congress for more oversight powers to review supplement companies' evidence proving their products' purported health benefits. FDA agreed that the agency should expand surveillance of the market to detect spurious claims that supplements can cure or treat specific diseases.

Investigators also found that 7 percent of the weight loss and immune support supplements they surveyed lacked the required disclaimer stating that FDA had not reviewed whether the statement on the label was truthful.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.