By Richard Harkness
Question: I'm confused. I take a one-a-day multivitamin plus 200 IU of vitamin E. I always assumed they were regulated substances, but since reading your article I notice they are labeled as dietary supplements. Does this mean the ingredients are unregulated or did your article refer only to herbs?
Answer: Both herbal and other dietary supplements such as vitamins and minerals remain essentially unregulated.
You're referring to my recent column about the budding trend toward independent certification of herbal and dietary supplements. Products that pass certification tests can display the certifying body's official seal.
USP (United States Pharmacopeia) offers two seals for product labels: the traditional USP seal, as well as the newer DSVP (Dietary Supplement Verification Program) seal.
It's important to know the difference between the two, so let's sort things out.
First, the older USP seal has been around for ages and is highly respected. It sets the standard for factors such as disintegration, dissolution, purity, strength, packaging, labeling and weight variation that are used in the manufacture of prescription and over-the-counter products (including most vitamin/mineral supplements and some herbal supplements).
However, compliance with the USP standard is voluntary and is unlikely to be officially monitored in the case of dietary supplements. Practically speaking, this means it is left to manufacturers to "guarantee" that supplements displaying the USP seal meet these standards.
That's a shaky proposition at best, particularly in the Wild West shootout of the current dietary supplements marketplace.
In contrast, the DSVP seal has much sharper teeth. It is part of USP's new certification program that independently tests dietary supplements to verify that, among other things, they contain what the label promises without potentially dangerous contaminants. Only products that pass these stringent tests can display the seal, which includes the words "dietary supplement USP verified."
Organizations granting similar certification seals include ConsumerLab.com, NSF and NNFA.
Expect to start seeing certification seals on more dietary supplement labels as reputable manufacturers submit their products for independent, third-party testing as a way to show consumers they are the wheat and not the chaff.
Mislabeled, defective and contaminated dietary supplements (primarily herbal products) have been linked to numerous cases of injury and death, and the Food and Drug Administration is virtually powerless to act until after the fact.
For this reason, I maintain that the single most pressing need is better quality control in the manufacture of dietary supplements.
The new certification movement addresses this issue and is a boon for consumer safety.
But you're still on your own when it comes to resisting the siren song of exaggerated, unfounded, too-good-to-be-true marketing claims.
In this regard, a tip on how the brain works: Emotion always beats reason out the gate, so it pays to pause and let reason catch up.
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