Proper nutrition is one of the keys to maintaining good health but, unfortunately, the American diet isn't exactly packed full of vitamins and minerals. Many consumers, as a result, have turned to supplements as a means to offset what they lack from their diets. This enormous demand has given rise to a number of companies interested in selling various nutritional products such as shakes, meal replacement bars and pills.
Lack Of FDA Oversight For Nutritional Supplements
The dietary supplement industry, however, has long benefited from a lack federal regulation when compared to medical drugs, which is why these companies can make numerous empty promises regarding the effectiveness of their products. Moreover, these supplements do not undergo rigorous testing to ensure their purity and potency, which means that consumers could be purchasing an expensive yet worthless product.
How To Avoid Fraud
Since the rules are rather loose when it comes to the supplement market, fraud comes in many forms. Some products provide modest benefits but are marketed as cure-alls, while others are part of multi-level marketing systems that look suspiciously like pyramid schemes. The worst, however, are the ones that appear legitimate but can cause serious side-effects. Here are a few examples of these common scams:
1. The Cure-All
California-based POM Wonderful is best known for its pomegranate juice products, though it also sells pills containing an extract. In May, a judge issued the company a cease-and-desist order due to a complaint filed in 2010 by the FTC, which stated that POM Wonderful engaged in false advertising by claiming that its products could prevent serious illnesses such as heart disease and prostate cancer. Unwarranted claims of this kind, unfortunately, are commonplace in the supplement industry, though this ruling suggests that the federal government has begun to pay more attention.
2. The "Free Trial"
The more exotic the plant, the more likely it will be touted as a miraculous weight loss product. Acai berry supplements supposedly help people lose weight by boosting their metabolisms, but this "proof" stems from testimonials and unknown medical experts. While acai supplements are probably a waste of money, a more serious problem has been the online scams involving these products. Central Coast Nutraceuticals, for instance, was shut down by the FTC after nearly 3,000 customers complained to the Better Business Bureau about receiving numerous credit card charges despite promises of a "free trial" period for its AcaiPure supplements.
3. The Pyramid Scheme
Multi-level marketing strategies have long been criticized for closely-resembling pyramid schemes because they offer heavy incentives for recruiting other salespeople into the program and tend to have high start-up costs. Herbalife, one of the most successful purveyors of nutritional supplements, has come under scrutiny lately after a Belgian court ruled in January that the company operated as a pyramid scheme. Although the verdict is under appeal, the company's annual reports have drawn further suspicion. In 2005, for instance, the turnover rate for its distributors was 80%, and most of these were lower-level salespeople. This high dropout rate suggests that a great deal of the company's income comes from recruitment instead of retail sales - a common characteristic of pyramid schemes.
4. Dangerous Medicine
Many pharmacy technician schools now train students to help customers understand the risks that some over-the-counter supplements pose, such as dangerous drug interactions and toxicity from high doses. Supplement companies, however, have been shown to reveal little information about the safety of their products. When agents from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) asked supplement sellers questions such as whether it was safe for people to take garlic with blood pressure medication, or if aspirin interacted with ginkgo biloba, all of them claimed that these herbal supplements were safe even though the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has stated otherwise. Whether these supplements do what they claim or not, they may carry risks that make them not worth taking.
Although many supplements have been shown to provide some nutritional or medicinal benefit, they are rarely as powerful as companies claim and some can be downright dangerous. Those who are interested in boosting their health with these products, then, should conduct some research and consult their doctor first before making a purchase.
Author byline: Young Lee writes from her hometown of Phoenix, AZ. She hopes consumers are aware of their choices when it comes to nutritional supplements.