For many experts, the $30+ billion over-the-counter (OTC) dietary supplement market is a minefield studded with health hazards. Lifelong consumer health advocate, Drug Topics board member Frederick S. Mayer, RPh, MPH, president of Pharmacists Planning Services, Inc., says that herbal products, vitamins, minerals, and specialty items are a mystery of marketing claims, and their risks and benefits are poorly understood by health professionals and consumers.
“Natural” does not equal “safe”
“We are learning every day about interactions between prescription drugs and dietary supplements,” said Mayer, citing the “four Gs” — ginkgo, ginseng, garlic, ginger — botanicals known to reduce blood platelets, with potential to be dangerous when accompanied by an anticoagulant such as Coumadin.
Also confounding is the vague labeling on bottles, especially for herbal products, Mayer said, asking, “Does that product come from the flower, the leaves, the roots, or the stems?” The source of an ingredient determines potency, which affects health benefit, serving size, and dosage.
Unfortunately, consumers have few roadmaps to navigate the mountain of advertising and product claims that surround the dietary supplement market. Lynn Lafferty, PharmD, ND, MH, MBA, associate professor of pharmacy, College of Medicine, NOVA Southeastern University, said that she sees people looking for health answers outside traditional medicine, but lacking expertise, they become easy prey to enticing but fraudulent promotional marketing.
“We’re seeing patients take their health decisions out of the hands of their physicians and pharmacists and put them into the hands of neighbors hosting ‘vitamin parties,’” said Lafferty.