FDA should not categorize multivitamins as “food”

Anna Staver

I’ve been thinking a lot about my health lately. So I ventured down the dietary supplement aisle at my local grocery store. I was overwhelmed by the diversity of claims made on the front of all those brightly colored packages.

The last time I walked down that aisle I was foolish enough to try a weight loss pill. I ended up with what felt like a heart attack combined with a stomachache.

This time I thought I’d do a little research into what would be the best multivitamin. But the more I learned about dietary supplements the less I wanted to try one.

The trouble is that the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate any of the pills I saw in that aisle. In 1994, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act placed these supplements under the category of foods, not drugs. There is currently no pre-market testing or approval required.

The FDA’s website states that it is up to the manufacturer of the supplement to verify the claims on the bottle. It can go after fraudulent claims, but in 2010 only 46 of the more than 20,000 supplements on the market were subjected to a safety review. Contrast that with pharmaceutical companies that spend years in testing before the FDA will permit their drugs to be sold.

Since clinical testing and peer review isn’t required, it makes me worry about the validity of their health claims. At best, I suppose any given pill will have no effect, but at worst I worry there could be harmful or painful side effects like my diet pill fiasco.

The FDA’s website states that Ephedrine, a common ingredient in diet pills, has been reported to cause strokes, seizures, psychosis and death. I think I would have liked to know that ahead of time.

None of the pills I looked at listed potential drug interactions. When I get antibiotics from the pharmacy, my prescription comes with a detailed list of possible side effects and harmful interactions.

The National Institutes of Health’s website listed some potentially problematic drug interactions. For example, St. John’s wort can speed the breakdown of several drugs, including birth control pills, and can reduce their effectiveness. I feel that is something women should know before deciding to take the supplement.

I realize reclassifying these supplements as drugs would be time consuming and costly. Talk of new standards could cause somewhat of a riot for the $34 billion-a-year industry.

I can also appreciate the argument put forth by pharmaceutical companies: Too much red tape holds up promising research and causes it to be abandoned due to high initial costs.

But I think we need some guarantees about the safety of what we put into our bodies everyday. A little research into the issues with food production in the early 1900s should be enough to convince anyone to favor stricter food and drug regulations.

These guarantees need to be supplied by federal agencies like the FDA because food production and medicine have advanced to the point where it requires a high level of specialization. Capitalism breeds this kind of proficiency. I can devote myself to being a journalist, doctor or farmer; I can’t do them all.

This system has allowed us to make great advances in a wide range of fields, but it means we have to trust other people’s expertise on a wide range of issues. And honestly, I don’t know that I trust the “doctors” on supplement commercials who look more like actors to me.

The dietary supplement industry needs the correct oversight. These pills are closer to a drug than an apple any day. I’d take a multivitamin to improve my health the same way I would take Claritin to help with my allergies.

Americans want to know if professionals verified Claritin’s medicinal claims and whether it had any potentially dangerous side effects before it went to market. Most of us don’t have the time or knowledge to do our own testing. I know I don’t.

But the difference is, I don’t think Americans worry about whether apples have potentially harmful drug interactions.

Anna Staver is a senior news major. Contact her at [email protected].