How to Read a Diet Label
If you've ever stood in the supplements aisle of the drugstore or health-food shop, searching for something to help you battle the bulge, you know how confusing the display of products can be. If the sheer number of choices isn't enough to make your head spin, the alphabet soup on the labels certainly will. Though the Federal Trade Commission polices claims made in print advertisements and on radio, label claims fall under the jurisdiction of the FDA, which imposes less stringent requirements. Under FDA guidelines, manufacturers may describe the supplement's effects on the body, but they must also include a disclaimer on the label that reads: "These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease." While this may be within the letter of the law, it provides little protection to the consumer. Another concern -- completely separate from whether an ingredient is safe or harmful -- is how much of it is actually contained in the product. Dosages are not standardized, and supplements often contain dozens of ingredients. "We don't know if what is supposed to be there will be there or not -- or at what strength," says Ruth Kava, Ph.D., director of nutrition at the American Council on Science and Health. "We also don't know if it will react with other prescription and over-the-counter products a person may be taking." A recent study by Consumerlab.com, an independent evaluator of health and nutrition aids, looked at levels of chromium, conjugated linoleic acid, and pyruvate (three ingredients used in weight-loss supplements and that some experts believe to be safe) to confirm their identity and amounts. Several products did not indicate the correct amount of the ingredient that was actually contained in the product. One supplement, for example, contained less than 5 percent of the amount of the chromium claimed on the label; another product met its claimed amount of chromium, but it was a different form: chromium (VI) -- the type implicated as causing cancers in the case portrayed in the movie Erin Brockovich. "This review is a microcosm of the problems we've found with other supplements," said Tod Cooperman, M.D., Consumerlab's president, in the study. "If consumers are going to use a supplement, they should be able to get what they expect -- nothing less and nothing more."