Where is the Middle Ground on Dietary Supplements?

As a diabetic who relies on dietary supplements to maintain good health, access to vitamins, minerals, and other natural substances is vital to my physical well-being. Yet controversial stories about dietary supplements often appear in the media, along with regular calls for government regulation of production and testing.

Like myself, more and more people are using supplements. But the middle ground where consumer confidence and general acceptance of supplements by medical doctors and insurance providers meet seems nowhere in sight. At first glance, increased government regulation might appear to be the best way to assure the quality we all want in the supplements we buy. After all, if regulation “works” for pharmaceuticals, why not for supplements?

Certainly there is no doubt the double blind studies and clinical trials which accompany the introduction of pharmaceuticals for general use is beneficial to consumers – but only up to a point. Enormous development costs, in large part a function of burdensome government regulation, go directly into consumer pricing, creating the paradox of “miracle medicine” that can only be had at outrageous expense and is often of questionable benefit. Such a situation bears little relationship to the way supplements are produced and consumed.

Many supplements are created from generic species of plants and herbs, and by definition are not patentable. This makes it both logically inappropriate and economically impossible for individual producers to meet the overwhelming costs of Federal Drug Administration trials. Further, the active components of supplements act in extremely subtle ways, often depending on minimal variations in ingredients or compounding.

How government might set standards for testing and certifying supplements given these conditions has largely been answered by the Dietary Supplement and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA): It can’t! By legally classifying supplements in ways similar to foods, Congress has wisely left them right where they should be, in an open, minimally regulated marketplace where the burden of proof is on the producer and the informed consumer, exactly where it should be.

For centuries, dietary supplements have served the health and wellness needs of people everywhere. What possible good can come of imposing an inflexible set of bureaucratic standards and regulations on an industry whose record of safety and beneficial use is virtually timeless?

The Dietary Supplement Health And Education Act confirms this observation, giving supplement producers and consumers the latitude to make and buy thousands of traditional and newly developed supplements without the burdensome government regulations that are sure to increase costs, diminish potency, and in the end compromise overall quality.

Yet the need for clear standards for supplement product testing and certification remain. General acceptance on the part of producers of good manufacturing practices is a critical item on the quality agenda. Also, we need ways to introduce both the public and health practitioners to the vast body of scholarly and clinical information supporting supplement use. But none of this will happen without enlightened activism on the part of consumers and a wider assumption of responsibility on the part of producers.

That’s why I have founded the Dietary Supplement Quality Initiative (DSQI) Through our websites, http://www.dsqi.org for supplement industry professionals andhttp://www.supplementquality.com for consumers, we are providing a forum for discussion about quality issues among manufacturers, health practitioners, academics and retailers as well as users.

We need to make sure that you and I get what we pay for and that the supplement marketplace remains open and competitive. Whenever a company adopts a quality assurance program to make sure that all the products going out the door contain full potency levels or a consumer takes the time to learn more about the factors contributing to product manufacturing, testing and efficacy, everybody wins.

Scientific knowledge about supplementation is expanding rapidly. We are learning more about the human body and the differences between minimal and ideal levels of daily intake. We’re also learning about the ways that various plant chemicals work together in affecting our bodies, even to such details as brain activity and bone density.

Government regulation can give us a false sense that that we’re being cared for. The fact that judgments are being made for us absolves us of personal responsibility. A better route lies in empowering people to make their own choices and challenging producers to define and meet the highest standards. Consumers of dietary supplements are strongly motivated to buy the best quality products they can. Freedom of choice is our best guarantee of having both high quality dietary supplement products and a vigorous industry and marketplace.

Editor’s Note: The American Holistic Health Association encourages individuals to be informed about matters that impact their access to the healthcare of their choice.