The NIH just pledged $35 million to find out—but it may not be enough
By Alexandra Ossola
September 9, 2015
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced on Wednesday that it will invest a total of $35 million toward research into dietary supplements. Five research centers will spend the next five years investigating the effectiveness of some of the most popular “natural” dietary supplements in the country.
This research is important because the medical benefits of many nutritional supplements are unproven, despite the fact that about one-fifth of Americans take them. Antioxidant supplements, for example, have been found to stave off cancer, among other diseases, in some patients but worsen preexisting lung tumors in mice. Fish oil contains Omega-3 fatty acids, which may help lower your risk of heart attack, or it could increase your risk of prostate cancer, or do nothing to stop cognitive decline. If any of these chemicals contains a miracle cure—or if health-conscious people are unwittingly hastening their demise—doctors should probably know.
Paul Offit, an infectious disease specialist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who has written extensively about vitamins and nutritional supplements, sees the value in these sorts of studies, even if the result is negative—in the past, similar studies have shown that taking concentrated garlic doesn’t slow bad cholesterol, or that the herb saw palmetto can’t help an enlarged prostate. “When patients want to take [these supplements] physicians can say ‘Don’t do it, take a statin instead. And don’t take garlic because it’s “natural”—it just doesn’t work,’” Offit says. The term “natural” is deceiving, he adds, since most drugs are derived from compounds found in nature.
But Offit doesn’t think the NIH’s investment in research will solve the real issue with supplements: a lack of strict regulation. “The problem is getting a quality product in an unregulated industry. I cannot emphasize this more strongly—the FDA simply does not regulate [supplements],” he says. Though the FDA does claim to regulate supplements, studies in recent years have shown that the nutritional supplements sold in health food stores contain varying quantities of the active ingredient that is often different from what is on the bottle, plus a whole bunch of extra ingredients not even mentioned on the label. Earlier this year, the New York State Attorney General conducted an investigation, adding to the mounting evidence against the efficacy of these supplements.