Use Caution When Searching for Supplements
Dietary supplements include vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, as well as things like enzymes, organ tissues, and metabolites. You can find out more about them online, but many are still lacking data to support their use. Here are some things you need to know when searching for complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) websites.
What You Will Find Online
There’s no shortage of online data about supplements. Many sites that focus on health problems are retail sites that sell products or link to a vendor. Many of these sites say they treat, prevent, diagnose, or even cure some diseases. Other sites do not links to vendors, such as government, industry, or academic sites. There are also sites that have articles about supplements.
Online health claims are not always true. Websites may have wrong or misleading content. Some of these can result in harm to people who use these products.
Failure to Share Information
The claims made on these websites can be misleading. They may also choose not to share key facts. Some websites even leave out the standard federal disclaimer. It should let readers know that the site content is general in nature and cannot take the place of medical exams, diagnoses, and treatment by a health care provider.
Many sites do not let readers know about harmful health effects, such as heart attacks, strokes, arrhythmias, high blood pressure, and rapid heartbeat. Others leave out the recommended dosages. The content on some websites that is meant to improve your health may make it worse.
Lack of Regulation
The Dietary Supplement and Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994 states that manufacturers don’t have to prove the safety or efficacy of a supplement before it is put on the market. This limits the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) control. The act also made it easy for low quality content to be posted online.
The DSHEA stripped some of the FDA control over supplements and placed the burden of judging safety onto the consumer. But it did not leave them completely without guidance.
Government Supports Research
Congress created the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Its goal is to promote better understanding of supplements. The ODS looks at scientific date, encourages and supports research, and works to educate the public. The ODS website has a database of federally funded research projects on supplements. Visit the ODS site to learn more about what supplements contain and what they may do to the body.
Focus on the language CAM websites use. This can alert you to false or misleading data. Watch for these red flags:
- Vague claims—such as “breakthrough,” “cure-all,” and “miracle”
- Jargon, such as “detoxify” or “purify”
- Claims that a product is backed by scientific studies, without citing those studies
- Not listing side effects or claiming they do not exist
- Reviews that sound too good to be true.
- Claims that the government, doctors, or drug companies are hiding data on given supplement
Read CAM websites with caution. They may leave out important content. Look for government or non profit web site content. Lastly, always talk with your doctor before using a supplement.
Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. Office of Dietary Supplements—National Institutes of Health website. Available at: https://ods.od.nih.gov/About/DSHEA_Wording.aspx. Accessed May 13, 2016.
Dietary supplements. Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: https://www.fda.gov/food/dietary-supplements. Accessed October 27, 2021.
Tips for older dietary supplement users. Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: https://www.fda.gov/food/information-consumers-using-dietary-supplements/tips-older-dietary-supplement-users. Accessed October 27, 2021.
Using dietary supplements wisely. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/using-dietary-supplements-wisely. Accessed October 27, 2021.
Last reviewed October 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Last Updated: 10/26/2021