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The Supplement Industry's Hypocrisy | Commentary

Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin’s bill to require the makers of dietary supplements to label their products accurately has the industry up in arms. This is rank hypocrisy. The supplement industry, along with the organic food lobby, does support labeling — but only when the products in question belong to competitors such as the producers of foods from genetically engineered plants, a situation in which the labels serve no useful purpose.

The nongovernmental organization Citizens for Health calls itself a consumer action group, but it appears to serve as the litigation arm of the supplement industry. Headed by two lawyers, the group says its mission is to work toward “increased value being placed on holistic healing modalities that offer Americans options over and above those controlled by managed care and ‘curated’ by the medical establishment.” Their wacky list of safety goals includes “organic foods free of pesticides and [genetically engineered organisms],” removal of “toxic chemicals” from bottles, cans and children’s toys and “expanded access to cutting-edge dietary supplements.” Naturally, they are fighting the Durbin bill.

Citizens for Health is also opposed to a lot of things that they think are “threats to our well-being,” which include “over-vaccinating,” “mercury dental fillings” and “artificial sweeteners.” You can guess where this is going — a place where spurious, self-serving litigation and lobbying intersect with airy-fairy, chemical-free-organic-back-to-nature fringe activism.

If this group were being honest about safety, supplement labeling would be at the top of its to-do list. The herbal supplements it pushes on the unsuspecting public often pose significant risks to health. As the Food and Drug Administration warns, “Be aware that the term natural doesn’t always mean safe,” and “bleeding is a potential side effect risk of garlic, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, and vitamin E. In addition, kava and valerian act as sedatives and can increase the effects of anesthetics and other medications used during surgery.” Other known side effects of herbal supplements include hypertension, deadly allergic reactions, irregular heart rhythms, kidney and liver failure, exacerbation of autoimmune disease and interference with lifesaving prescription drugs. St. John’s wort, which is commonly used for its slight efficacy as an antidepressant, can interact adversely with dozens of prescription drugs. It has caused life-threatening side effects such as rejection of heart transplants (caused by an interaction with the immunosuppressant cyclosporine) and treatment failure in AIDS patients (because of interference with the protease inhibitor indinavir).

Potentially harmful interactions with “real” drugs become exponentially more difficult to predict as the number of medications (and pseudo-medications) increases. The American Society of Anesthesiologists warns patients to stop taking herbal supplements at least two weeks before surgery to avoid dangerous interactions with anesthesia.

Meanwhile, the genetically engineered foods the supplement industry wants to eliminate from the marketplace actually improve nutrition and safety. Genetic engineering’s higher yields and lower production costs have resulted in higher farm income, enhanced supplies of food and feed products, and more readily available high-quality calories. This is particularly important in developing countries where income levels are lowest but per-acre benefits from planting genetically engineered varieties have been greatest.

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