Snake oil ad from November 1914 Duluth Hearald

Grocery stores and pharmacies offer shelves full of dietary supplements. So as a retired person (read aging) looking to decelerate the aging process I became curious. Can these supplements provide an edge or even a short cut to good health maintenance? Answering the question got more complicated than I expected and I ended up doing a ‘research report’. I did not originally have the above headline in mind, but it emerged at the end of my efforts. (The image is from Wikipedia. The original  source is the Duluth Evening Herald, November 30, 1914, p. 3). Read my entire report here.

Dietary supplements include fish oil, herbal products, vitamins, minerals, fiber, fatty acids, and amino acids and maybe some other things. In fact, use of dietary supplements is growing and as an industry it generates something like $30 billion in annual sales in the US. CNN reports that more than half the adult US population uses dietary supplements and that there are over 50,000 dietary supplement products.

However, dietary supplements have been under suspicion for some time. The New York Times has published a series of articles dealing with dietary supplements. This series began with an article November 3, 2013 reporting on studies that found that “DNA tests show that many pills labeled as healing herbs are little more than powdered rice and weeds.” Nothing has changed except the name. Per Wikipedia, “snake oil became a generic name for many compounds marketed as panaceas or miraculous remedies whose ingredients were usually secret, unidentified, or mischaracterized and mostly inert or ineffective.”

The New York Times continues to track the issues  and according to a subsequent article, the November 3 report prompted an investigation by the New York Attorney General. The New York AG did in fact test various herbal products sold by GNC, Walmart, Target and Walgreens and found that four out of five of the products did not contain any of the herbs on their labels. What they did find for the most part was cheap fillers and in some case substances that could be dangerous to people with allergies.

But even if you get what is listed on the label, does it do you any good? Nobody really knows because no testing is required before dietary supplement products are put on the market. In the US at least, supplements are considered foods and deemed safe basically until somebody gets seriously ill or dies.

Fortunately, the most commonly used supplements, vitamins, minerals and fish oil have so far been free from serious adverse side effects. But do they really help? One of the more honest and straight forward appraisals I could find begins with the question: Do I really need them? The answer is “First and foremost, nutritional needs should be met by eating a variety of foods as outlined in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In some cases, vitamin/mineral supplements or fortified foods may be useful for providing nutrients that may otherwise be eaten in less than recommended amounts. If you are already eating the recommended amount of a nutrient, you may not get any further health benefit from taking a supplement. In some cases, supplements and fortified foods may actually cause you to exceed safe levels of intake of nutrients.”

So that is it in a nutshell. For the full story, Link to my report.