U.S. News & World Report noted in 2003 that "63% of U.S. adults would like to lose 20 pounds" (USNews.com). Recently, the CDC reported that "the percentage of adults age 20 years and over who are obese: 34% (2007-2008)" (Center for Disease Control). If you (awkwardly) combine those two statistics, then it would safe to say that 1/3 of the American population must lose weight for their long-term health and the rest of us could stand to lose a few pounds, if only for cosmetic reasons.
The Washington Post recently ran a report that the ubiquitous "tiny belly" internet ads are being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for fasle advertising. The FTC says that the harmless "tip for reducing belly fat" is actually part one of the 3-part scheme to "inflated claims about their products and use deceptive means to market them" (Washington Post). If that is what is happening, then it would warrant an FTC investigation. The Washington Post reports that the inconspicuous, hand drawn ads have acquired billions of user impressions from being run on many social media and news organizations web sites, including Facebook, Weather.com, LA Times, Washington Post, MSNBC.com and The Guardian (UK Newspaper) just to name a few. The Washington Post is also reporting the the parent company responsible for the internet ads has made "at least $1 billion and counting" over the 18-month life of the campaign.
And it is no wonder, that an inconspicuous looking product with simple advertising could easily coax thousands of people into buying their product, with a promise to help them lose weight. Americans are desperate to solve their weight problems, and there are a myriad of companies out there ready and willing to help. Some are quite effective and reputable and others, like the "tiny belly" producers are being investigated for, are just plain phony!
"'The industry is inhabited by thousands of companies, some credible, some outright frauds,'" notes John LaRosa, an analyst at Marketdata Enterprises, a research firm" (USNews.com).
If that is the case, then how would one know if the plan or product that they are subscribing to really works? The short answer is, you don't.
U.S. News & World Report calculated that the "weight loss industry" made $40 billion annually in 2003, and there is reason to believe that the number is even higher than that today. Some of the most profitable companies are now household names, whether you have weight issues or not:
Weight Watchers: $1 billion (2003)
Slim-Fast $900 million (2003)
Metabolife and Jenny Craig also ranked quite high in revenues as well.
Ephedra was one of the key ingredients in Metabolife 365, and while the FDA had been warning consumers not to use ephedra since 1997, the ingredient was not banned from the approved list of weight loss supplements until 2004. The FDA still advises consumer not to take any products containing ephedra ingredient, yet a Google search of the diet pill pulls up a host of companies still selling it online.
But, what was more surprising for me to learn, is that dietary and vitamin supplements are completely excluded from FDA regulation and approval.What that means to regular consumers is that the only protection or certainty that the supplements they are taking actually work is that the companies selling them "tell the truth" about the products.
The FDA has not been regulating the dietary supplement industry since 1994, when the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) barred the FDA from having supplement producers supply their products for inspection before distributing to the public. What?! It's true. According to the FDA web site, "the dietary supplement or dietary ingredient manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that a dietary supplement or ingredient is safe before it is marketed" (FDA.gov). The FDA can only take action after the supplements have proven to be problematic. There are rules about labeling, packaging and distributing of products within the United States, and it is the producers responsibility to ensure that their products meet the parameters of the law, but outside of that...they can say it does just about anything.
So, what does the DSHEA actually say?
According to the DSHEA law, dietary supplements are defined as one of the following:
a vitamin, mineral, herb (or other botanical) or an amino acid.
Said supplements must be produced in the form of:
pill, capsule, tablet, powder or liquid form
...and cannot be "represented for use as a conventional food or as the sole item of a meal or diet" and must be labeled as a "dietary supplement."
If those parameters for approval seem awfully broad to you, then you are not alone. "The act allows natural supplements to be marketed without any proof of their purity, safety or efficacy. Producers of these supplements are largely exempt from regulation by the Food and Drug Administration, which can take action against them only if they make claims about their products curing or alleviating disease — or if, say, their customers start dropping dead" (Time).
Who in their right minds would make it impossible for the FDA to regulate products which are either ineffective or hazzardous? According to Time magazine, a powerful lobbying group from the health food industry and a number of sympathetic key senators. "Its passage was eased by the strong support of such medically illiterate politicians as Senator Tom Harkin (who believes in the healing powers of bee pollen), Senator Orrin Hatch (whose state of Utah is a hub for herbal manufacturers) and Representative Dan Burton (the most rabid Congressional opponent of vaccination)" (Time).
While most of the products on the market which fall under the heading of "dietary supplement" are at the least harmless, that doesn't necessarily mean that they are effective. Time Magazine ran an article in 2003, wherein they released the findings of some researchers from University of Wisconsin, who had bad news for "devotees of alternative medicine." According to Leon Jaroff of Time, university researchers decided to test the effectiveness of echinacea, "a popular herbal remedy for the common cold" (Time). According to that same Time article:
"They gave capsules of the herb to 73 students suffering from the common cold. Another 75 students were given a placebo, dummy pills containing only alfalfa. The results: 'Compared with the placebo,' the researchers reported, 'unrefined echinacea provided no detectable benefit or harm.' In fact, those students taking the placebo remained sick for an average of 5.75 days, compared with 6.27 days for those on the herb. Some remedy" (Time).That is a shame, in part, because I know a few people who really do believe in the healing power of herbal remedies, including echinacea. Ginseng is another popular herbal remedy, which is administered for any number of ailments. According to eMedTV.com, "Ginseng is an herbal supplement that is used for a variety of different uses. A few of these uses have some promising research in their favor, some have limited scientific support, and many have no scientific basis whatsoever" (eMedTV.com). EMedTV.com considers Ginseng appropriate for "improving mental functioning" and "lowering blood sugar (in people with diabetes)" but shows "less promising results" for "the cold..influenza, bronchitis, congestive heart failure or breast cancer treatment" (eMedTV.com). The last two "less promising" results on this list, congestive heart failure and breast cancer treatment, are fatal illnesses. I can only imagine that if they were included here that someone (or possibly a lot of people) have taken Ginseng root extract as a means of helping their chronic conditions. I pray that they would not be taking Ginseng in leiu of treatment and it makes me wonder about the character of a person or company who would market this herbal remedy for that purpose.
The bottom line is that libertarians, who have no need for a "nanny-state" are in luck, because there is no government bureaucracy in place telling them not to take dietary supplements! In fact, there doesn't appear to be hardly any regulation in place for the diet and health food industry whatsoever. And until people start "dropping dead" as the Time article put it, there will still be billions of dollars to be made annually from the hope that you can get "slim", "better" or "well" in the form of a dietary supplement.