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Berginski: Consumers need supplement fraud protection

By Staff | Jun 20, 2014

Statistics don’t lie: 70 percent of people in the U.S. are overweight. Last year, according to the Federal Trade Commission, U.S. consumers spent $2.4 billion on weight loss products-products with dubious claims as to how much body fat they could lose.

So dubious, in fact, that on Tuesday television doctor Mehmet Oz took nothing short of a grilling from Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and others on Capitol Hill as to why he was pushing weight loss products at all. At one point, McCaskill said the evidence against the efficacy of supplements he endorsed was “monolithic.” (And you know some serious stuff is about to go down when someone drops the “m” bomb.)

For years, those seeking an instant fat-burning pill have looked to things like garcinia cambogia, green coffee beans and acai. And studies have proven all of them to be as effective as placebos, or even less. Another growing industry is nutritional supplements, which grew to a $27 billion enterprise in 2012. (Now, some people do need nutritional supplements to combat deficiencies. However, there are some who will buy and take supplements without seeking the advice of a doctor – who would probably tell them to eat healthy diets instead – before doing so.)

The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate dietary supplements, unless of course something goes horribly wrong with a lot of people who take them. The FDA hasn’t had to do so since the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. Well, maybe it’s high time they start monitoring, at the very least.

Why? For one, in 2011, dietary supplements became a common source of consumer fraud. According to an FTC survey conducted that year, over 5 million adults bought weight loss products – specifically the type that promise substantial loss with even the most minimal of work. When they lost half of the pounds they expected to lose, provided they even lost weight at all, they cried foul.

Two, who knows what could be in those supplements? If you take a multivitamin and multimineral supplement, you presume what’s in there is mainly vitamins and minerals of every letter in the alphabet. There could also have a bunch of other ingredients in there, either put in purposely or by accident, and some of them could negatively affect you, like active ingredients for certain medicines. Or they could mess with medicines you could be taking. Take St. John’s Wort, for example. Those who take it aren’t always warned that it could mess with birth control and blood-thinning medications.

Three, someone on TV promoting the stuff can be justification to purchase it in some peoples’ eyes. I should say not just anyone, more likely a celebrity. Someone you’d look up to, admire or even trust. Which, suffice to say, could be a raison d’etre for the McCaskill-Oz grillfest.

While consumer protection committees on Capitol Hill are paying attention, consumers still do need protection from the next potential bottle of snake oil.

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