The vitamin and supplement industry is big business in Australia. An estimated 75% of the population use some form of complementary medications, including vitamins, minerals, herbs, aromatherapy and homeopathic products.
But some vitamin supplements and protein powders at best dont run and, at the worst, can cause harm.
Tonight, ABCs Four Corners program will air a PBS Frontline investigation exploring the complex issues surrounding supplements in Northern america. Its an eye-opening report that details a web of lobbying and legislation designed to protect the industry, but which ultimately leaves customers at risk.
The issue of harm is encompassed upfront with a group of patients in Hawaii who suffered liver failure in accordance with the ingestion of a dietary supplement. Many involved transplants.
At the other extreme is the revelation that 60% of supplements analysed for the active ingredients didnt contain what was stated on the label.
In a random sample of 44 popular herbal supplements bought from North American stores and analysed for their Dna fingerprints, one-third demonstrated outright substitute, meaning there was no tracing of the plant advertised on the bottle.
Others contained undisclosed fillers such as soybean, wheat and rice. Gingko biloba supplements, promoted as memory enhancers, were mixed with fillers and black walnut, a potentially deadly hazard for people with nut allergies.
These findings make it very difficult to have any religion in the usefulness of supplements.
But even in the case of unadulterated supplements, scientists and doctors caution, in the absence of a medically diagnosed deficiency, we are taking too many. A recent study reports that taking extra vitamins and minerals can do more damage than good and may even increase cancer hazard rather than reduce it.
In addition, some commercially available preparations of fish oil have been shown to be rancid, as a result of poor processing procedures. This can trigger inflammatory pathways in our cells the exact opposite of what they are designed to do.
If youre thinking that what happens in North American doesnt affect me, you might be wrong. Herbal supplements bought online have been linked to at least six Australian organ transplants since 2011.
This includes the recent case of a Perth man who was given two weeks to live and involved an emergency liver graft after taking a protein powder containing green tea extract and a supplement containing garcinia cambogia. Such was his emergency that he had no choice but to accepted a liver infected with hepatitis B.
Australias regulatory authorities responded by saying theyre continuing to investigate the report and the results will be made public if there is sufficient evidence of a security issue. But Australias regulations when it comes to supplements are also woefully inadequate.
First of all, if a product is intended to be used as a supplement, it must be listed with the Therapeutic Goods Administration( TGA ). The process of listing a product, however, only requires the registrant to fill out an on-line form, choose from a listing of pre-approved ingredients( indicating low danger and tested for safety in isolation) and state they hold information to substantiate their products claims. They are not required to present it.
What is missing from this painting is testing each batch of supplement for the concentration and safety of indicated ingredients that is really in the bottle.
Importantly, the ingredients should be tested for safety in combination, since we know that a mix of herbs or plants can be more potent when combined.
Whats also missing is checks that the claims constructed on the bottle can be substantiated prior to the opening of the product going on sale. While conformity checks do occur, each review covers only a fraction of the total products listed on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods( ARTG ). Each time, dozens of products are cancelled for reasons ranging from unsubstantiated claims on the label, to unacceptable quality, security or efficacy of the goods.
And that doesnt even cover products that are not listed on the ARTG, such as traditional Chinese medicine products that have been procured to be contaminated with pharmaceuticals such as paracetamol, antihistamines, antibiotics and blood-thinners, as well as significant high levels of toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium and lead.
Meanwhile, Australian supplement producers are required to adhere to good manufacturing practise. Their sites are also inspected and licensed by the TGA.
But, beyond that, does the product do what it says? Is there any active ingredient in the bottle? You many never know.
Consumers can easily be lulled into a false sense of security, especially if a product is stamped with an official-looking number and sold beside evidence-based medicines in a pharmacy. But theyd be wrong and this is simply not good enough.
Like North America, we also have a vocal supplement foyer with connections to powerful people, but shouldnt we be putting consumer safety above earnings? Most definitely we should, but until that happens I would steer clear of over-the-counter supplements. Buyer beware.
Supplements and Security: The hidden dangers of vitamins and health supplements airs tonight at 8.30 pm on ABC TV and iview .
Rachael Dunlop, Visiting associate
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