a middle ground between food and medicine, supplements have been
eagerly adopted by millions of Americans for a host of reasons.
In general, supplements are freely available without prescription,
yet the ease with which they can be obtained carries a price: use
them knowledgeably and with caution or be prepared to bear the consequences.
evidence suggests that benefits far outweigh negatives in the area
of dietary supplementation. While annualized incident reporting
shows a modest number of negative reactions to supplementation,
it must be remembered that with the exception of daily vitamins,
supplement use is still fairly limited in the U.S. Yet, the media,
medical organizations, public interest groups and others regularly
raise safety concerns relating to dietary supplements.
perspective, consider the following: According to Drug Topics,
in the reporting period ending September 30, 1998, U.S. domestic
sales of dietary supplements amounted to more than $3 billion. While
this figure may sound substantial, the Statistical Abstract of the
United States reports that U.S. shipments of food and kindred products
for 1997 amount to over $470 billion. Further, according to Drug
Topics, prescription drug sales for 1998 amounted to $102 billion,
while over-the-counter drug sales for the same period amounted to
does not think of peanut butter as a killer, yet allergic reactions
to peanuts, which can cause severe respiratory problems and even
death, are fairly common. Milk is a staple of the American diet.
Yet undiagnosed lactose intolerance is another common cause of illness.
On such evidence should we limit public access to peanuts and milk?
same might be asked of over-the-counter and prescription medicines.
Unsupervised children are regularly poisoned by Tylenol and aspirin
despite the best efforts of manufacturers to limit children's access
to such common drugs. In April of 1998, the Journal of the American
Medical Association reported that properly prescribed pharmaceutical
drugs killed over 106,000 hospital patients in the preceding year
due to toxic reactions.
injuries are caused by medical administration errors and out-of-hospital,
prescription-drug-related incidents. The fall 1998 edition of Natural
Health reports that adverse events from prescribed drugs sent
over 1 million people to the hospital in the previous year.
these statistics, which on their face appear to be a devastating
indictment of the medicinal use of drugs, must also be placed in
perspective: About 2.3 million Americans die every year, many of
them as the result of chronic illness or severe trauma. To suggest
that advanced medical care and hospital facilities that save millions
of lives be called into question on the basis of limited mortality
statistics flies in the face of logic. Suicide alone caused by misuse
of prescriptive or over-the-counter drugs killed upwards of 2800
Americans in 1995. On balance, drugs heal and cure far more than
cause toxic reactions and death. Along similar lines, food can cause
illness and even death if at-risk individuals eat without caution
and proper knowledge.
But what of dietary supplements? By comparison, incidents resulting
in death are extraordinarily small: Only about 50 deaths from all
causes attributable to dietary supplements have been reported over
the last decade!
for every one person who dies from a dietary supplement toxicity,
thousands die from prescription drugs. Why such a dramatic difference?
Many dietary supplements have a history that is literally "as old
as the hills." They are derived from natural substances that have
been used and evaluated for centuries. Also, supplements tend to
be less concentrated and less dangerous than "invented" substances.
Again, some perspective is in order. Hundreds of deaths occur annually
from eating soft cheese alone. Long term health is compromised as
well by certain foods. For example, high levels of saturated fat
are associated with heart disease, vascular disease, cancer, obesity,
and other illnesses.
Even though dietary supplements are generally quite safe, consumers
occasionally report adverse events associated with their use. It
is important to be aware of potential problems and how to avoid
There are two general categories of concern regarding the safety
of dietary supplements: toxicity (the possible negative effects
inherent in a supplement) and contamination (impurities introduced
during production). Either can result in an adverse event. To read
more about these subjects, click on a section title to the right
or use the Next Page buttons for continuous reading.