If you’re one of the 75 per cent of Australians who consume expensive vitamins, supplements and ‘natural’ remedy products believing that they improve your health, you may be surprised to learn that you’re being misled – and even placing yourself in danger.
ABC TV’s episode of Four Corners on Monday night addressed the divisive issue of dietary supplements and looked at a number of studies conducted in North America. The program also considered the highly politicised nature of the legislation that is used to bolster an industry that ultimately allows consumers to be placed at risk.
The North American studies into the benefits and risks of supplements have discovered that an overwhelming majority (60 per cent) of the supplements analysed did not contain the active ingredients stated on the label.
In fact, while many supplements were deemed useless at providing the health benefits promised, some were even considered to be potentially harmful. In Hawaii, it was found that a group of patients contracted liver poisoning, necessitating transplants, following the consumption of dietary supplements. Other risks with supplements involved the inclusion, but mislabelling, of certain ingredients such as soybean, wheat and nut, which could lead to potentially deadly allergic reactions in some consumers.
However, these findings are not only relevant for the United States. As a result of herbal supplements with dangerous compounds being made available online, imported supplements have been linked to at least six Australians needing organ transplants since 2011. These have included three kidney and three liver transplants.
Furthermore, scientists and doctors involved in a study at the University of Colorado warn that taking vitamins and minerals without a medically advised reason could result in serious harm, with an increased risk of cancer being cited as a potential danger.
Why not watch the Four Corners report?
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Australians consume an estimated $1.5 billion of vitamins and supplements every year and it seems we’re being taken for a ride. You only need to look at the recent class-action lawsuit against Nurofen’s misleading packaging to see that drug and supplement manufacturers are more concerned with profit than the health of their customers.
Think your humble fish oil supplements are safe from the controversy? The US research also found that the fish oil contained in some supplements was rancid due to failures in processing procedures, leading to inflammation in the body’s cells – the exact condition the supplement is supposed to counteract.
In Australia, strict rules require all products marketed as supplements to be listed with the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Australian supplement manufacturers must be licensed by and follow the guidelines of the TGA.
But if you think that protects us against ‘fraudulent’ supplement products, you’d be wrong. Because all it takes to have a product listed with the TGA is for the applicant to fill out an online form, select from a list of pre-approved ingredients which their product contains, and then simply state they have the evidence to substantiate the claim. One thing that isn’t enforced is routine testing of the supplement each time a new batch is produced.
The good news? Products are tested and checked by the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG), and many supplements are cancelled due to safety concerns or unsubstantiated claims.
But what about the products not included on either the ARTG’s or TGA’s list, for example, Chinese medicine products? A 2015 report published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports discovered that some Chinese medicine products contained remnants of toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, cadmium and lead. Others were found to be contaminated with pharmaceuticals such as paracetamol, antihistamines, antibiotics and blood-thinners.
So how do you know which products are safe to consume? The short answer is you don’t. While you can’t rely on labels to accurately inform you about what’s in your supplements, the one thing you can do is your own research into the products you choose to ingest.
Have you ever had an adverse reaction from taking supplements? Do your supplements feature on the ARTG’s approved or cancelled lists? Do the results from the North American studies surprise you? Would you or have you taken Chinese medicine products?