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FDA warns of potentially harmful and illegal marketing of dietary supplements

FDA raises concerns about dietary supplements
FDA raises concerns about potentially harmful dietary supplements 04:18

The FDA is warning about the risks of harmful dietary supplements, alerting consumers about false claims, unknown ingredients and potentially dangerous products.

"The big question is, what's in them? There is no requirement to have them looked at or analyzed before they go on to the market," Dr. David Agus said Friday on "CBS This Morning." "And so we need quality, and at the same time, we need to get away from the claims — [like] we're going to stop Alzheimer's and cancer with these pills. Without data, lots of claims are being made."

In February, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced new efforts to modernize the regulation of the dietary supplement industry, stating: "As the popularity of supplements has grown, so have the number of entities marketing potentially dangerous products or making unproven or misleading claims about the health benefits they may deliver." The FDA also warned companies illegally selling products as dietary supplements, falsely claiming to treat or cure Alzheimer's disease, among other health conditions.

Americans spent more than $40 billion on supplements last year. Three out of every four Americans regularly take a supplement, according to the FDA, in an industry that's grown from about 4,000 products to more than 50,000 in the past 25 years. 

"Right now the FDA, when you submit a drug, it looks and makes sure it's exactly pure before you give it. And it looks at a clinical trial to say, can you make the claims it works?" Agus said. "The supplements, they just put them on the market. And it's voluntary whether they can be analyzed by something called the U.S. Pharmacopeia."

While you'll find some supplements with a verified U.S. Pharmacopeia "USP" label, Agus said "of the 50,000 on the market, 100 are approved by the Pharmacopeia."

To know if a supplement is safe for you, Agus said, "The first question is: should you be taking supplements at all?"

"Make sure your doctor knows you're taking them because they could interact with the medicines you're taking, number one."

Unless you are pregnant and taking prenatal vitamins, or have certain eye conditions, Agus said there's "no data" to show many of these supplements work.

Agus also warned about some plant-based supplements.

"Many of these plants that they're derived from absorb heavy metals from the soil. So there could be contaminants that could cause a problem," he said. "At the same time, these are drugs. And you're taking them. Some of these vitamins in high doses can actually increase the rates of cancer, of bone fracture and many diseases."

The Council for Responsible Nutrition, the leading trade group that represents the dietary supplement industry, said it supports the FDA's efforts to improve safety and quality: "We welcome additional enforcement actions to bring to justice those who would cynically trade on the halo effect of responsible industry to make a quick buck while ignoring the safety and health of consumers."

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