Filed under: Dietary supplements
Food and health are hot topics these days. Just turn on the TV, pick up a magazine, or glance at the margins of your social networking site and you’ll hear and read about the supposed health benefits of dietary supplements containing this or that food component and the promises that they will “burn belly fat” or some similar claim.
Many of these promising food components belong to a group of compounds referred to as phytochemicals—chemicals produced by plants as a means of protecting the plants from various diseases.
Interestingly, when you eat plants (such as fruits and vegetables), the phytochemicals they contain might protect you from disease too. Researchers have found that people who eat a lot of fruits and vegetables have lower rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and many other diseases. Scientists haven’t discovered exactly how these compounds work to protect us, but they have discovered that they seem to have a synergistic effect. That is, the compounds seem to work better in combination, especially when they are supplied in their natural form—whole foods. Consuming isolated single compounds, as in dietary supplements, rarely has the same beneficial effect as eating the whole food. See these resources about fruits and vegetables and how they may impact your overall health.
Focusing on single nutrients (in pill form) is not only expensive, it just doesn’t offer the promise that a balanced, varied diet can. Focus on food, instead. For more information about the benefits of food versus dietary supplements, check out this OPSS brochure, “Nutrition: Fueled for Fitness.”
Sports products and dietary supplements are often discussed on social media, but think twice before taking other’s word for it. A recent article in the British Medical Journal notes that claims and endorsements made on social media such as Facebook & Twitter are not regulated and may promote statements that have not been supported by science. Some red flags noted include:
- Paid endorsers. Do you know that some comments and images about a product can come from people (celebrities and non-celebrities) paid by companies to post great reviews about their products? Be careful that such claims may be coming from a paid sponsor and may exaggerate their results from a product.
- Endorsed hashtags. The hashtag such as “#ad” is a disclosure recommended by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to indicate that a social media post is coming from someone being paid (or otherwise reimbursed) by the company of the product they are endorsing. If such a hashtag appears in a social media post, then you know that it is sponsored and may be biased. (For more about FTC’s new endorsement guidelines, visit their FAQs web page.)
- Biased research. Assessing the science behind claims is the best way to evaluate a product. However, a common practice is that companies cite their own labs and research. When it comes to dietary supplements, it’s best to get information about products from unbiased, evidence-based organizations such as Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, United States Pharmacopeias (USP), or NSF International.
- Unbalanced comments. When you scroll through a product’s social media page, do you find that all the reviews are positive? On platforms such as Facebook, companies have the ability to delete comments. A transparent company usually addresses negative comments and provides support to establish its position.
Look for these and other red flags when it comes to dietary supplements and their advertising. If you have a question about a particular sports product or dietary supplement and can’t find the answer on HPRC’s website, please use our “Ask The Expert” button located on the Operation Supplement Safety (OPSS) home page.
The Department of Defense (DoD) Safety Review Panel published their findings on DMAA in a recent report now available through HPRC. The Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs asked the Safety Review Panel to evaluate the safety of DMAA-containing dietary supplement products. The Panel has recommended that the sale of DMAA-containing products be prohibited in all military exchanges.
HPRC maintains a list of dietary supplement products containing DMAA and periodically updates this list. The most recent version can be found on HPRC’s website. Note that, as of the FDA announcement in April 2013, DMAA is illegal in the U.S. as an ingredient in dietary supplements. For more information, visit the OPSS FAQ about DMAA. Operation Supplement Safety (OPSS) can provide service members and their families with information to make informed decisions about dietary supplement use. For the full DoD Safety Review Panel report, see the link on HPRC's Dietary Supplements web page.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued warning letters to 15 companies regarding illegally marketed diabetes products that are in violation of federal law. These products are either dietary supplement products or unapproved prescription drugs with claims that they “prevent and treat diabetes” and “can replace medicine in the treatment of diabetes.”
FDA is warning consumers to stop using these products since they may harmful, and their use may interfere with receiving the necessary medical treatment for diabetes. More information is provided in FDA’s “Illegally Sold Diabetes Treatments,” which includes the news release, warning letters issued, and a consumer update.
The dietary supplement and fitness industries are filled with sport drinks, powders, bars, pills, gels, footwear, clothing, and an array of devices all claiming to provide you with a competitive advantage, whether it be improved performance or enhanced recovery. With the ever-growing popularity of team and individual sports, professional and recreational athletes of all ages are an easy target for these claims. But how many of these claims are backed by evidence-based research?
A recent report now reviews the quality of evidence behind the claims of improved sports performance made by advertisers for a wide range of sports-related products, including sport drinks, supplements, footwear, and clothing. The team identified 431 performance-enhancing claims for 104 products advertised in more than 100 general, sport, and fitness magazines in the UK and U.S. for a single month in 2012. They found that more than half of the advertisements and their associated websites provided no evidence to support the claims of enhanced sports performance. Only 146 references were found, and only 74 of these met basic criteria for research quality and almost all of the 74 were found likely to be biased or lacking scientific objectivity. Only three studies were rated as “high” quality and probably unbiased. Such lack of evidence makes it very difficult for consumers to make well-informed decisions about using performance-enhancing sports products.
This review makes it clear that many of the claims made for sports and fitness products lack reliable evidence to support them and that more and better studies are needed to help inform consumers. In the meantime, consumers should be cautious when reading claims of enhanced performance and recovery and always remember that “true” evidence-based results mean that a substantial number of independent research studies have been performed, with findings that clearly support the claims made by advertisers. Presently, there is still no substitute for sound physical conditioning and nutrition practices.
For more information on dietary supplements and how to choose supplements safely, please visit Operation Supplement Safety (OPSS). For information on physical fitness and conditioning, please explore HPRC’s Physical Fitness domain. The original British Medical Journal open-access article is available online.
Tribulus terrestris is used as an ingredient in some dietary supplement products marketed as testosterone “boosters” and/or to enhance muscle strength. What is it and does it work? Read this OPSS FAQ about Tribulus terrestris to find out. Also, be sure to check the OPSS section often, as we add answers to other questions about ingredients in performance-enhancing and bodybuilding supplements. OPSS can help you learn how to choose supplements safely.
If you have a question about a particular dietary supplement ingredient or product, and you can’t find the answer on our website, please use our “Ask the Expert” button located on the OPSS home page.
Cheeba Chews are marketed as chocolate taffy, but they actually contain an illegal substance. Read the Operation Supplement Safety (OPSS) FAQ to find out more about these products and whether they are legal for members of the military community to consume. Be sure to check back often as we add answers to other questions and topics in the OPSS section of HPRC’s website.
Dendrobium is being used as a dietary supplement ingredient in some pre-workout products marketed to enhance physical or athletic performance. What is it? And is it effective? Read this OPSS FAQ about dendrobium to find out. Be sure to check back often, as we add answers to other questions about ingredients in performance and weight-loss supplements and how to choose supplements safely.
If you have more questions about a particular dietary supplement ingredient or product, please use our “Ask the Expert” button located on the OPSS home page.
Synthetic drugs are laboratory-made substances marketed and sold as alternatives to illegal drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, and amphetamines. Although most are advertised as “all-natural,” they may have serious health effects and violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). HPRC takes a look at two examples of synthetic drugs, their legal status, and how they can affect service members in “HPRC’s Answer: Synthetic Drugs of Abuse.”
Carnitine is a naturally occurring substance in the human body that helps cells use fat for energy. The liver and kidneys can produce carnitine from amino acids provided by the diet, but carnitine also comes from many foods, especially red meat, and is an ingredient in many dietary supplements and energy drinks.
Sometimes doctors use carnitine to treat certain heart conditions. Recent clinical trials suggest that carnitine supplements may help reduce many of the complications associated with heart attacks, such as chest pain and irregular heart rhythms.
But new research suggests that long-term consumption of dietary carnitine also may play a role in the development of atherosclerosis—“hardening of the arteries”—especially in people who eat red meat regularly. So what’s the bottom line? More research is needed to determine the risks and benefits associated with carnitine.
You can learn more about carnitine in HPRC’s Dietary Supplement Classification System.