nutrition science

The FDA is Reforming their Role in Dietary Supplement Oversight.. Finally!

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it plans to overhaul regulations for the $50 billion a year dietary supplement industry. The FDA is planning much needed updates to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) which passed in 1994. Alongside this announcement, the FDA sent advisory and warning letters to supplement companies that were selling products with illegal claims or that contained unapproved drugs. Some companies that received the advisory and warning letters were claiming that their products prevented, treated or cured Alzheimer’s disease and a number of other serious diseases and health conditions. According to the press release, “three out of every four American consumers take a dietary supplement on a regular basis”. The overhaul of the 25-year-old Act is music to this public health dietitian’s ears!

If you’re not familiar with the regulations surrounding the giant supplement industry, let me give you a quick introduction. Unlike medications or drugs, supplements are not required to undergo pre-market approval before being sold. The FDA leaves it up to supplement manufacturers to evaluate their own labeling and safeness of their products to make sure they meet regulations. It isn’t until AFTER the supplements have hit the market that the FDA steps in and then can take action against any “adulterated or misbranded dietary supplement”. Essentially the FDA’s current role for supplements, is to remove unsafe supplements from the market but this could occur years after the supplement was sold to an unknown number of consumers and could have caused adverse effects. Seems a little backwards, right?!

The FDA is finally stepping in and Commissioner Scott Gottlieb outlined three priorities as part of his statement. The first priority he outlines is safety and ensuring consumers are protected from harmful products. The second is product integrity and ensuring they contain only the ingredients listed and that they are “manufactured according to quality standards”. The third priority is informed decision-making among consumers and health care professionals.

I look forward to seeing more details unfold around this announcement and I truly hope that this will deter supplement companies from making false or misleading claims. I assume that the FDA’s Office of Dietary Supplement Programs, which was only created three years ago, will be integral throughout this process. In the press release and statement, the FDA has made it clear that they do not want to hinder innovation but they also are very aware of the problems that exist within the supplement industry. In a perfect world (ha!), supplements would go through the same approval as medications or drugs, and would not be allowed to be sold to consumers without some type of approval process but I’m not sure these regulatory changes will go that far. It would also be ideal to address the source of information and ensure that individuals or companies selling supplements are qualified to do so. I hope that the FDA will closely look at multi-level marketing companies selling supplements and products as well. Until we learn more about what this update/overhaul entails, I’ll continue to push back on supplements that claim to help someone lose 10 pounds in 2 days or promote “fat burning” keto coffee.

Beyond the Headline: Does Eating Organic Really Reduce Your Cancer Risk?

The latest nutrition headline to catch on with the media is how eating organic can reduce your risk of developing cancer by 25%. So let’s unpack this- does eating organic REALLY reduce your risk of developing cancer?

Years of research between organic and conventional foods have shown that the nutritional value is similar. Purchasing organic is a personal preference just as purchasing conventional is. Often, organic items are not affordable for consumers so headlines like this may unnecessarily make shoppers who purchase conventional feel as though they are increasing their, and their families, cancer risk by not purchasing organic. No consumer should be shamed for purchasing fruits and vegetables for their families whether they are conventional or organic.

So now let’s break down the study. The actual absolute reduction risk reported in the study is a mere 0.6%. The author of the study herself stated that the study does not prove an organic diet causes a reduction in cancer but suggests that an organic based diet COULD contribute to reducing cancer risk. The results also discuss how a higher frequency of consumption of organic foods only led to a decreased risk of developing Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and breast cancer while there was no association detected for other types of cancer. Confounding factors must also be considered with this study like the fact that those who purchase organic tend to be wealthier, eat more fruits and vegetables in general, and consume less processed meat and alcohol- all which play a part in reducing cancer risk.

The issue isn’t with the study, it’s the reporting of it. An important aspect of reporting on this type of research is accurately interpreting scientific research. The American Cancer Society provides guidance on how to see beyond the headline of “scientists find link between X and cancer” or in the case of this study “X can reduce your risk of cancer by (insert insane percentage here)”. Their guidance goes beyond cancer related research and provides great advice on how to interpret any type of nutrition or health study that you might come across in the media- what’s the source, what did the research actually find, who funded the research, what about other evidence and what is the bigger picture, and who are the experts?

As a public health dietitian, I still encourage the consumption of fruits and vegetables. It is a matter of personal preference to purchase organic and consumers should feel empowered to make the best choice for them and their families. While studies, and headlines, like these seem incredibly groundbreaking and hopeful, let’s all be good stewards of nutrition science and read beyond the headline to ensure consumers receive factual information without fear.