Dietary supplement use,

Jake Kapsner

From protein powders to nutritional drinks and herbal pills, dietary supplements that promote health go virtually unregulated in the United States. And as the multi-billion dollar industry grows, so does consumer confusion over product claims versus actual performance.
University food scientists Ted Labuza and Mary Schmidl detailed the political history and potential health concerns of dietary supplements before 25 students and colleagues Wednesday night at the Classroom-Office Building in St. Paul.
But the lecture held more than academic significance.
Herbal products enjoy an annual retail market of almost $4 billion, with a growth rate of 18 percent a year since 1991, according to the New York Times.
Dietary supplements, once considered medical quackery, have gained massive mainstream acceptance and are sold in pharmacies, nutrition centers, grocery stores and on the Internet.
Products once geared to body builders with names like Hot Stuff and Human Machine Oil have expanded into broader pastures that now include dietary supplements like green-tea ice cream and Brocco-Sprouts, Labuza and Schmidl said.
Despite widespread use, Labuza said he was concerned with the safety and acceptability of these products.
Because dietary supplements are classified as neither food nor drugs, businesses can sell supplements without doing the detailed, long-term studies before food and drugs enter the market, he said.
Ambiguous definitions of what constitutes a dietary supplement have left the Food and Drug Administration relatively powerless to regulate the industry.
When the FDA did try to seize a supplement product because of health concerns, a federal judge threw out the case.
“My major concern is that this law has completely bastardized the legal system in terms of the consumer,” Labuza said.
Yet industry associations are making proactive efforts to study label claims, define products and improve standardization, Labuza said.
And a federal law passed in 1996 goes into effect March 23 that prevents manufacturers from making drug-claims for dietary supplements.
“I think there’s benefit to some of these products, but let’s not run out and treat ourselves at the grocery store,” Labuza said, adding that a self-medicating consumer doesn’t have the expertise of a traditional herbal practitioner.
In some cases, however, the supplements can simply be ineffective.
For example, the bottled version of St. John’s wort and echinacea may contain little to none of the active compound that gives the parent herbs potency, Labuza said.
In addition to protein drinks and multi-vitamins, St. John’s wort — used for mild depression — is a big seller among University students who frequent the General Nutrition Centers store in Stadium Village, said co-manager Nick Lee, who said he takes 15 various supplements a day.
“If you take any supplements, you have to consider they can have some side effects, but you can have side effects with anything, including food,” Lee said.