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Are your supplements safe?

If you have ever stood in a retail aisle wondering whether a supplement you might purchase is safe and effective, there is wisdom in what you're doing.

Many Americans assume that dietary supplements—which include herbs, vitamins, diet formulas, hormones and even some energy drinks—are tightly monitored. But that is not always the case. While manufacturers in the $30 billion dietary supplement industry must register their facilities with the Food and Drug Administration, they do not need FDA approval to produce or sell their supplements.

It is mostly up to supplement manufacturers and distributors to ensure that the claims and labeling on their products are truthful and not misleading.

Just this year, the New York State Attorney General's office accused mainstream retailers GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart of selling fraudulent and potentially dangerous herbal supplements.

And the reality is that the incident in New York is not isolated. So what are we as consumers to do?

My recommendation is get informed:

  • Think critically about your purchase, and ask questions.
  • Research the supplements you are taking, the claims they make, the company that is manufacturing them, the source of their ingredients, and where they are being sold.
  • Know that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Although the benefits of some dietary supplements have been documented, the claims of others may be unproven.
  • Weigh the benefits of the product against the cost you may be paying.
  • Beware of websites selling supplements that may not be reputable.
  • If you are wondering whether or not you need a supplement in the first place, check with your primary care doctor, an integrative health practitioner or a licensed nutritionist.
  • If you experience a serious adverse effect or illness believed to be connected to supplement use, report it to the FDA's MedWatch Program by calling 1-800-FDA-1088 or reporting online.
  • Contact your legislator to let them know you care about this issue.

Here are some resources that can help you do your research:

So, if you find yourself standing in the supplements aisle and you can't determine if a product is safe or effective, it's best to hold off on making a purchase. Do some research, talk to a registered dietitian, a licensed nutritionist or a pharmacist, and wait until you can feel good about what you're buying.

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