Katie Couric – The Supplement Controversy

We, the sisters — the doctor and the patient — were watching the CBS News with Katie Couric in which she reported on a government study of supplements, some of which were found to contain toxic substances.  For the casual listener of such a trusted information source as this, one might not even think twice about the message being received — buyer beware your supplements may not be safe.  So we hunted down the original study, now let’s really talk about this:

  1. The first claim was that supplements contain toxic elements like mercury and arsenic. This can seem scary at first. However, the amounts found were below the threshold set by the FDA and are considered safe. Steve Mister, president of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, said “it was not surprising that herbal supplements contained trace amounts of heavy metals, because these are routinely found in soil and plants (The New York Times).” In fact, “Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said in an interview that he was not concerned about the safety of the supplements tested by the G.A.O. (The New York Times).”
  2. The second claim was that supplements contain traces of pesticides and industrial chemicals. Sadly, this is also the case in many of our fruits, vegetables and meats not grown organically, which is why Naturopathic Doctors stress the importance of an organic diet. The fact is we should be coming down hard on industrial food producers for using pesticides and other chemicals which then enter our food supply whether in the form of supplements or other items, not necessarily coming down hard on supplement companies that are much farther down on the food production chain.
  3. The third claim was that 37 out of 40 supplements tested positive for contaminants. Again, this seems like data that is very succinct and convincing. Numbers can be persuasive. Yet, this would hardly qualify as being a rigorous scientific study. The first inherent problem is that the sample size is too low to be representative of all supplements, the supplements tested were not chosen in a truly random fashion — again, making them not representative. Only one lab tested these products. A better study would have had at least two independent labs test the samples for quality control.

So, did this CBS report do the American public any good? It seems on deeper reflection, it was questionable journalism at best. Even the final conclusion in which Dr. Jennifer Ashton says that the safest way to use supplements is to talk to your MD seems almost controversial and here’s why:

  • The US Medical Professions Comparison Report in 2001 stated that traditional medical schools such as John Hopkins, Yale and Standford offer no curriculum hours for Naturopathic Therapeutics or Therapeutic Nutrition. Even if there are some courses on herbal supplements, no continuing education requirements exist to make sure MDs stay current on natural supplements.
  • There exists no paradigm for evaluating supplements in traditional MD offices, not unless patients specifically request it.
  • And finally, traditional MDs do not generally have the relationships built with nutraceutical companies. Without this, it can be difficult to know who is producing the high quality products on the market.
  • In comparison, a Naturopathic Doctor has over 1,000 curriculum hours in Naturopathic Therapeutics; they have a paradigm of evaluating supplements with every new patient — not only for quantity of doses but quality of ingredients; and have established relationships with industry leading nutraceutical companies.

It’s good advice to visit with your MD about your supplements. But, it can be hit and miss depending on your MD’s previous experience. It seems much better advice to have your supplements evaluated by a professional who has experience evaluating supplements — like Naturopathic Doctors.

The most important final thought is this: no one is saying all supplements are created equal. In fact, Naturopathic Doctors have known for years that there is a very big difference in the quality of supplements on the market. That is why they are such staunch advocates for evaluating supplements. Quality is an issue. It’s important to know which brands to choose. But what is even more important, a topic not covered by the CBS report, is that it takes very specialized training to use supplements therapeutically.  Let’s take Cancer Treatment Centers of America. They have dedicated specialists, NDs, that make sure a regiment of supplements enhance traditional cancer therapies, support patient systems, and have positive and synergistic drug interactions. This take years of training and experience. So, instead of creating a scare around supplement therapy, it seems much more empowering to encourage people to contact trained Naturopathic Doctors who can sort out the cloud of confusing information.

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