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Use Caution When Searching for Supplements

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Image for alt med searching Dietary supplements—vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids, plus substances such as enzymes, organ tissues, and metabolites—comprise a significant portion of the CAM industry. Information on these products abounds on the Internet. And yet, the effectiveness of many of these supplements remains unproven. Here are some things you need to know when searching CAM websites.

What’s on the Internet?

There’s no shortage of data regarding dietary supplements on the Internet. Many sites dedicated to oral health supplements are retail sites selling products or linked directly to a vendor. Many of these sites claim to treat, prevent, diagnose, or even cure specific diseases. But how credible are these claims? Others are personal sites without links to vendors; government, industry or academic sites describing particular supplements; and sites containing referenced articles about the supplements.

False Claims

Web-based health claims about supplements are not always true. Websites may contain incorrect or misleading statements, some of which can directly result in serious harm to consumers.

Failure to Disclose Information

However, it is not only the claims made on these websites that can be misleading. The information many sites choose not to disclose can be equally dangerous. Some retail CAM websites omit the standard federal disclaimer, which informs the user that the website’s information is general nature and cannot take the place of medical evaluation, diagnoses, and treatment by a health care provider.

Many do not disclose potential adverse health effects such as heart attacks, strokes, arrhythmias, increased blood pressure, and heart palpitations; and others leave out the recommended dosage of supplements. Essentially, the information—or lack thereof—presented on some websites that is intended to enhance your health may actually jeopardizes it.

Lack of FDA Regulation

The 1994 passage of the Dietary Supplement and Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which states that manufacturers don’t have to prove the safety or efficacy of a dietary supplement before it is placed on the market, limited the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) control over dietary supplements. The act also made it easier for less-than-reputable information regarding dietary supplements to be posted on the Internet.

Although the DSHEA stripped some of the FDA control over dietary supplements and placed the burden of determining the safety and efficacy of these supplements more heavily on the consumer, it did not leave consumers completely without guidance.

Government Supports Research on Dietary Supplements

When the DSHEA passed, Congress established the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to promote a greater understanding of dietary supplements. To this end, the ODS evaluates scientific information on supplements, stimulates and supports research, and disseminates results to the public. The ODS Web site contains a database of federally funded research projects on dietary supplements. If you have questions about the ingredients found in dietary supplements, as well as related health outcomes and biological effects, you can access the ODS database to learn more.

Tips for Navigating CAM Websites

Paying close attention to the language CAM websites use to describe supplements can also alert you to false or misleading information. Beware of the following red flags:

  • Vague claims—such as “breakthrough,” “miracle cure”, and “magical”—that present no legitimate research to support them
  • Use of pseudomedical jargon, such as detoxify or purify, to describe a product’s effects
  • Claims that a product is backed by scientific studies, without references to those studies
  • Failure to list side effects
  • Accusations that the government, the medical profession, or drug companies are suppressing information about a given supplement

The next time you’re searching the Internet for information on a new supplement, remember to read the claims made on CAM websites with caution. Be aware that there may be significant omissions in the information you’re being given. Your best bet for accurate information is a government or not-for profit web site. Finally, remember to always consult a physician before using a dietary supplement or other non-FDA-regulated substance.

  • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

    http://nccam.nih.gov/

  • National Council against Health Fraud

    http://www.ncahf.org/index.html

  • Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS)

    http://dietary-supplements.info.nih.gov

  • Food Directorate

    Health Canada

    http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ahc-asc/branch-dirgen/hpfb-dgpsa/fd-da/index-eng.php

  • Health Canada

    http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/index%5Fe.html

  • Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. Health.gov website. Available at: http://www.health.gov/dietsupp/ch1.htm. Accessed August 31, 2012.

  • Dietary Supplements. US Food & Drug Administration website.Available at: http://www.fda.gov/food/dietarysupplements/default.htm. Updated August 27, 2012. Accessed August 31, 2012.

  • Fox S, Rainie D. The online health care revolution. Pew Internet & American Life Project website. Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2000/The-Online-Health-Care-Revolution.aspx. Published November 26, 2000. Accessed August 31, 2012.

  • Fox S, Fallows D. Internet Health Resources. Pew Internet & American Life Project website. Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2003/Internet-Health-Resources.aspx. Published July 16, 2003. Accessed August 31, 2012.

  • Tips for older dietary supplement users. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Food/DietarySupplements/ConsumerInformation/ucm110493.htm. Updated June 13, 2011. Accessed August 31, 2012.

  • Using dietary supplements wisely. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine website. Available at: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/supplements/wiseuse.htm. Updated March 2010. Accessed August 31, 2012.