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Food supplements: too readily authorised and sometimes dangerous

Several factors contribute to a major ongoing confusion between food supplements and medicinal products. Large numbers of safety signals increasingly indicate the need for caution, whereas the benefit of taking food supplements remains uncertain.

Consumption of food supplements is constantly increasing, especially those based on ingredients derived from plants. In France, marketing is regulated, but the regulation lacks rigour.

Several factors contribute to serious confusion between food supplements and drugs, including similarity of formulations and packaging, health claims, suggestive brand names, and advertising aimed at consumers.

The manufacturers of food supplements are subjected to very few requirements regarding information. Labelling has to conform to the requirements for foodstuffs, not health products. Manufacturers are not routinely required to provide a patient-information leaflet with content defined by a responsible authority.

Health claims put forward by manufacturers make these products look like medicines, whereas they escape the checks associated with actual medicines. Health claims are verified at the European level, but depending on how European Union regulations evolve, there is a danger that this requirement could disappear for plants with a recognised traditional use.

There is a growing list of adverse effects, sometimes involving serious disorders, whereas the benefit of taking food supplements remains uncertain. Healthcare professionals have a role to play by urging caution, and, together with their patients, raising questions as to these supplements' real benefit, the uncertainty of their effects, and their dangers. It is crucial to report any adverse effects, in order to better protect consumers.

©Prescrire 1 July 2021

Source: "Food supplements: poorly evaluated and monitored, too readily authorised, and sometimes dangerous" Prescrire International 2021; 30 (228): 192-193 Subscribers only.

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