Food and Nutrition Misinformation Is a Danger that Consumers Can Avoid, Says American Dietetic Association
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CHICAGO – A new Congressional report on potential dangers of misleading marketing of dietary supplements underscores the need for consumers to distinguish reliable information from misinformation, and to seek the advice of qualified experts in making decisions about supplements and healthful eating, according to the American Dietetic Association.
"Food and nutrition misinformation has been on the rise for a number of years," says registered dietitian and American Dietetic Association spokesperson Keri Gans, "along with increased consumer spending on products like functional foods, dietary supplements, natural and organic foods and natural personal care products."
The Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission play critical roles in dealing with food and nutrition misinformation. "But the often-overwhelming burden placed on them means consumers still need to be aware, and to turn to authorities like registered dietitians for help in distinguishing fiction from fact and making healthy choices," Gans says.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office's report, "Herbal Dietary Supplements: Examples of Deceptive or Questionable Marketing Practices and Potentially Dangerous Advice," was released Wednesday, May 26, at a hearing of the U.S. Senate's Special Committee on Aging.
The study "uncovered both improper advertising and marketing of dietary supplements, as well as the existence of contaminants such as mercury, lead and pesticides in certain products," said the committee's chairman, Sen. Herb Kohl (D.-Wis.). "American consumers should have access to comprehensive, accurate information about these products, so they are empowered to make the best decisions about their own health."
The GAO found some dietary supplements "commonly used by the elderly were deceptively or questionably marketed"; sales materials for products sold online "claimed that herbal dietary supplements could treat, prevent, or cure conditions such as diabetes, cancer or cardiovascular disease"; and GAO investigators "were given potentially harmful medical advice."
"Because the burden of proof falls on the federal government, there are fewer safeguards preventing the development of costly and useless products," according to the American Dietetic Association's position paper on food and nutrition misinformation.
"The cost of health fraud can be estimated to be in the billions of dollars, especially when including the cost of purchasing products that may do no harm but also provide no benefit," according to ADA's position. "In the short term, physical harm can occur if there are unknown drug–nutrient interactions or toxic components in foods. Physical harm can also occur if the use of products leads individuals to delay or to avoid seeking proper health care, or if it interferes with sound nutrition education and practices."
As legislators and policy makers debate the appropriate role of government in regulating dietary supplements, individuals can do much to positively affect their nutritional health, Gans says. "Seek expert guidance, and be certain the person to whom you're turning for advice has earned the credential 'registered dietitian.'
"While some registered dietitians call themselves 'nutritionists,' not all nutritionists are registered dietitians. There is a very big and very important difference between the two." While some states have licensure laws that define how a "nutritionist" can legally practice, in other states, virtually anyone can call him- or-herself a "nutritionist" with little or no education or training.
"Registered dietitians specialize in offering guidance that is personalized, doable, practical and affordable," Gans says. "We know what does and doesn't work. We cut through the clutter of information that is often overwhelming, scattered and inaccurate, and we serve as consumers' lifeline to eating right."
The American Dietetic Association is the world's largest organization of food and nutrition professionals. ADA is committed to improving the nation's health and advancing the profession of dietetics through research, education and advocacy. Visit the American Dietetic Association at www.eatright.org.