By Allegra Kirkland
Would you ever pay money for pills containing crushed-up houseplants, powdered rice or fragments of psychiatric medications? If you’re one of the tens of millions of Americans who take dietary supplements, the answer could very well be an unknowing yes.
It may surprise people to learn that there are hardly any regulatory requirements for vitamins and supplements in the U.S. The $36 billion industry has avoided Food and Drug Administration rules that generic medications must adhere to, such as testing products to prove that they are effective and safe before they go on the market. In fact, a 1976 congressional amendment pushed through by Democratic Senator William Proxmire ensures that the FDA can never limit the potency of vitamin pills, classify them as drugs, or require that they can only contain useful ingredients. This loose oversight opens the door to all kinds of errors, from mislabeled ingredients to overly strong suggested doses that can leave consumers with lasting health problems.
Arriving at this regulatory no man’s land was no easy feat. Since the scientific underpinnings of vitamins were first discovered in the 1920s, a two-headed pro-vitamin propaganda campaign has been launched by the Dietary Association of America and by industry lobbyists and their supporters in Congress. In the 1940s and ‘50s, food scientists and marketers promoted vitamin- and additive-enriched foods, advertising their longer shelf lives and vague “nutritional benefits.” This strategy, which allows companies to artificially inflate prices and promote nutritionally vacant products as healthy, endures. At the same time, alternative medicine advocates, supplement industry leaders and their beneficiaries in the House and Senate have fought proposed regulations tooth and nail, arguing that they are infringements on our ability to make our own healthcare decisions.