FDA Prepares to Crack Down on Supplements


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The largely unregulated nutraceuticals market may finally have a reason to worry. The $40 billion dollar industry has expanded rapidly in recent years, as more people seek supplemental nutrition or to treat illnesses. These products are often a hybrid of food product, vitamin, supplement and functional ingredient, combined to form a “functional food” product that purports nutritional benefits.

This week, FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced an effort to strengthen regulation on dietary supplements. The agency also issued warnings to companies like Peak Nootropics and Mars Venus, along with ten other major supplement companies, claiming that some had misled customers with their product claims. These companies produce products that claim to treat everything from Alzheimers, an incurable illness, to strokes.

3 out of 4 American adults take a dietary supplement. Given this prevalence, startups like Care/Of and Ritual have emerged to millennial-ize the act of taking daily vitamins via a subscription model. But it’s not just vitamins – products like energy bars, real-food vitamins, and brain beverages are all following the functional food trend.

Consumers often assume that these companies are highly regulated. They’re wrong.

An industry without oversight

As the New York Times points out, the nutraceutical industry has been lacking oversight since a 1994 law imposing minimal reporting and labeling requirements for vitamin companies. At that time, there were very few supplement companies. Today, just about everyone sells a functional food product or a supplemental ingredient. But the burden is on the FDA, to prove a food is unsafe. With thousands of companies making claims every year, oversight is lax.

Though supplement makers should be the most concerned about their claims, anyone making a functional food is at risk. Claiming that your product can treat diseases? You may need to roll that back. With thousands of people in hospitals every year due to complications from supplements, the danger is real. Taking vitamins to supplement a nutritional deficiency is one thing, but selling Alzheimers-treating herbs? That’s a 2019 snake oil.

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