The Case for Supplements


Written by Mike Gill

An interesting story broke this past February. The Attorney General Office of New York accused four major retailers of selling fraudulent and dangerous herbal supplements. This is interesting in that it points out several things about supplements that most people don’t know. It would seem strange that a state Attorney General would be filing this action rather than the FDA, but this in one of the interesting side notes of this story: the FDA has no jurisdiction over supplements, unless those supplements have caused harm. The other thing that is eye-opening about this article is how egregious the mislabeling of herbal supplements is. 80% of the products tested contained no traces of the herb they claimed to contain. It is clearly a time to look at the legislation governing supplements. In the meantime, should we give up on supplements altogether, as many suggest, or is it time to be more cautious in choosing our brands?

The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act was passed in 1994 and remains in effect. For years, the bill has been criticized as being written in the best interests of the supplement companies, not for the public. The chief author and advocate of the bill is Senator Orin Hatch. Hatch is a representative for Utah, which is the nation’s hub for supplements. The bill allows supplement companies to release their products without showing their safety, as long as the supplements claim no direct medical benefits. As long as consumers are not harmed by recommended usage, the FDA has no jurisdiction over supplements.

In the natural health community it has long been suspected that what is in the cheapest supplements is anybody’s guess. After all, if you were a supplement corporation and the only way that you would have difficulties with the FDA was to make direct medical claims or to get people sick, wouldn’t you choose the cheapest, safest ingredients possible? Before you answer, keep in mind that anything with medicinal value can cause harm in the wrong dosage. Also keep in mind that corporations have a legal mandate to maximize profits; expecting them to choose ethics over profit is expecting them to break the law. Wouldn’t you expect them to at least use enough filler to lower costs and reduce the actual medicinal effects? The tests carried out by the State of New York not only showed those fillers (abundant and unlisted on labels), they showed that in most cases there was no trace of the herb that the bottles claimed to contain.

Do supplements actually help? Questions like this are impossible to answer with a simple yes or no. Clearly the herbs tested above won’t help with anything (unless rice powder, ground houseplants and the placebo effect is all you need). However, scientific literature has shown many times over that some herbs have effects that are not only quantifiable, but outperform pharmaceuticals. Turmeric, garlic and ashwaganda in particular have been shown to be very effective for a variety of conditions. All three have been used traditionally by billions of people, so to question their safety using facts would be challenging (though those who stand to make a profit will find a way, I’m sure). In short, most of the world uses herbs as their primary medicine. We are alone in our ridiculous legislation and nearly alone in our societal sense that herbs are somehow both spurious and dangerous.

Another type of supplement consists of extracted chemicals that mirror things that should be in our diet (vitamins, minerals, amino acids, etc.). Do we need these? Can’t a person get enough from food? This is also tricky to answer quickly. There is quite a bit of debate about this, but my opinion is that the answer falls somewhere between “no” and “you might be able to, but you’re not going to”. It saddens me to say that, because I’d far prefer to see people get everything they need from food. In reality though, this just isn’t happening. 68% of Americans do not consume the daily recommendation of Magnesium[1], and this recommendation (the RDA) isn’t based on optimal health, it is based on avoiding gross deficiency diseases. Magnesium is an anti-inflammatory which aids with stress. Some forms are also used as a laxative. The leading causes of the chronic diseases that plague our country are inflammation and stress. Aging Americans are also prone to constipation. While it would be foolish to blame these things wholly on magnesium deficiency, it would be reasonable to say that additional magnesium would help. Look into nutritional deficiencies with other vitamins and minerals and you will see a similar picture.

With regards to getting your nutrients through food alone, nutrient testing paints a discouraging picture. Studies have shown that the concentration of micronutrients in vegetables have decreased by 5-40% since 1950[2]. These studies indicate that higher yield crops are lower in trace minerals. Higher yield crops are the norm now, though heirloom varieties are occasionally available. It is unclear whether this alone accounts for the often drastic difference in nutrient content in today’s crops. Our economically based practice of growing single crops on the same land year after year also leads to nutrient depletion, though this is so specific to individual land that it is difficult to show directly. Plant crops are not alone in this depletion; the meat we eat today is not the meat of yesterday. Wild game is not only lower in fat and chemical contaminants than farm raised meat, it is also significantly higher in omega-3 fatty acids.[3] The imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 acids in our diets is widely accepted to be a major cause of the inflammation which leads to so many of the chronic diseases that plague our society.

So, can supplements help us gain or maintain good health? The evidence would strongly point to “yes”, but that comes with a caveat. The product you are taking should come from a trustworthy brand, and be chosen carefully. This choice should be based on evidence and/or expertise, not based on advertisements. Seeking guidance from a professional is the best, safest way to do this.

[1] King D, Mainous A 3rd, Geesey M, Woolson R. Dietary magnesium and C-reactive protein levels. J Am Coll Nutr. 2005 Jun 24(3):166-71.

[2] Davis, Donald R. Declining Fruit and Vegetable Nutrient Composition: What is the Evidence? HortScience February 2009 vol. 44no. 1 15-19

[3] Anthony J McMichael and Hilary J Bambrick (2005). Meat consumption trends and health: casting a wider risk assessment net. Public Health Nutrition, 8, pp 341-343. doi:10.1079/PHN2005742.

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Michael Gill is a Clinical Nutritionist and Massage Therapist. He has a BS in Health Sciences and has been in the alternative health field for 13 years. He also has a black belt in Poekoelan Indonesian Martial Arts. To find out more, check out his website: