A recent ABC Four Corners episode, Supplements and Safety, looked at the issue around the safety of supplements in the USA. They provided some evidence of supplements in the USA, that when analysed, did not contain the ingredients that the label indicated. Furthermore, some of the supplements contained ingredients that were toxic and people were harmed. These are serious circumstances that people should be aware, particularly in the USA. However, what the Four Corners program failed to highlight was that supplements in the USA are classified as Food, and are not strictly regulated. There was also no context provided relating to people who had adverse reactions to these supplements. In Australia, every supplement is strictly regulated for safety and quality by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).
Therefore, the main relevance of the Four Corners story to Australians is that people should be very wary of buying supplements from overseas because they are not regulated by the TGA. This is particularly relevant for people who are self-prescribing supplements. As a practitioner who carefully prescribes nutritional supplements, it was very disappointing that Four Corners failed to highlight the difference between the regulation of supplements in Australia compared to the USA. There are many people in Australia on nutritional supplements that may be unnecessarily concerned after watching this program….possibly concerned enough to stop taking their supplements. In my opinion, Four Corners did not comply with the first point in the MEAA Journalist Code of Ethics.
For some reason, they also chose to pick on just one supplement – fish oil. They were absolutely right about fish oil and the risks of it becoming oxidised (rancid). This is one plausible explanation as to why some trials for fish oil are negative, while others show positive results….could it be that in some trials they are potentially using rancid fish oils…or maybe some studies were of poor quality? Anyway, natural therapists are well aware of the issue of oxidation, which is why I would only prescribe fish oil:
Sure, the evidence for fish oil in the treatment of some conditions may not be overly strong, but there’s no denying the need for this vital nutrient and the benefit it provides in many inflammatory conditions. Short to medium-term fish oil supplementation is very safe for most people and well worth trialing in many conditions. Furthermore, picking out one condition for one nutritional supplement is simply just cherry picking.
Although we do have strict regulations governing supplements, not all supplements are created equal. We choose our supplements carefully, based on a variety of criteria. There are still risks for Australians taking supplements, particularly if self-prescribing, which is why the TGA strongly recommends that you seek advice from a health professional before taking supplements. This is particularly true if you have a chronic condition or are taking medications.
If prescribed by a health professional, supplements are generally very safe and effective and evidence for their efficacy is increasing all the time. Unfortunately, there is no motivation for pharmaceutical companies to spend loads of money on researching nutritional therapies. No company can patent a vitamin or mineral and therefore no company can have exclusive sale rights which ultimately means they can’t recoup the multi-millions required to do trials. Therefore, scientific evidence for nutritional supplements is not as strong as for pharmaceutical medications. However, lack of evidence does not equate to lack of efficacy.
There is increasing evidence, both from scientific studies and clinical evidence, for the use of nutritional supplements. As a nutritionist, I understand the therapeutic benefits of using high quality strictly regulated nutritional supplements from trusted brands and this is why I will continue to prescribe them for clients when indicated.
I have provided some links below relevant to this topic.
Rick Hallion is a naturopathic nutritionist located in Coffs Harbour, NSW. Rick is passionate about improving people’s health using nutrition, lifestyle and environmental health solutions. Rick uses mainly practitioner-only products from trusted companies that are as passionate as him about health and wellbeing.
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