vitamin supplements

You might think the answer to this question is easy–“Of course I do. It says right here on the bottle–‘Vitamin C’.”

It turns out, it may not be that simple. There is increasing evidence that what you think you are taking may or may not be in the bottle. And, when it is in there, the dosage may not match the label–sometimes not by a long shot.

This is the subject of a new documentary, “Frontline: Supplements and Safety,” co-produced by PBS Frontline, The New York Times and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It aired in January, but you can still watch it here.

If you take vitamin and mineral supplements, you are not alone. Over half of all American adults take dietary supplements.

If you have spent a fair amount of money on them, you are even less alone. In 2014, Americans spent nearly $37 billion on dietary supplements (National Institutes of Health).

These facts are surprising when you consider how limited the regulation of these products actually is. Many assume they are treated like over-the-counter or prescription drugs, that is, they are rigorously controlled for quality and safety by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

This is not the case.

While the FDA can remove supplements from the market if they are alerted to any deemed unsafe, they don’t oversee quality before they hit the shelves. That responsibility falls to the supplement manufacturers.

FDA is not authorized to review dietary supplement products for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed.–Food and Drug Administration

Scientists all around the world, however, do study the use of supplements in people. Sometimes they find benefit and sometimes they don’t. Occasionally they find harm, the FDA is alerted, and the supplement is recalled.

Millions of people take supplements everyday. Many of these, even the ones with no proven health benefit, are taken with no ill effect. Without any independent body testing these products to make sure they are what they claim to be, it is up to the manufacturer to do the right thing. In some cases they do, and in others, due to negligence or fraud, they don’t.

At best, people who buy misrepresented products are being fleeced. At worst, their health is at risk. You can see some of these worst case scenarios played out in the Frontline documentary, mentioned earlier. There are cases of severe liver damage, the presence of anabolic steroids, and even death linked to certain supplements.

Before you go flushing all your vitamins down the toilet, the news is not all bad. Legislators, like the Attorney General of New York, along with a whole slew of physicians and researchers are beginning to test these products independently and are demanding better regulation.

If you have any doubt about a supplement that you are taking, take it in to your doctor and get her advice. You can also check out the FDA’s page on safety alerts and advisories.

So, while we can’t always tell you whether you should or should not take a certain supplement, we can remind you to eat your fruits and veggies–that we know is good for your health.