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Updated 02 November 2015

Sex, pills and bad online info

The Internet is offering a wealth of information to more and more people, but also an avenue for irresponsible businesses to exploit consumer health concerns.

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Despite the differing regulations in the US, the EU and elsewhere concerning dietary supplements and food with health claims, the Internet remains a grey area, and a medium to exploit those with personal problems that often push the consumer to favour anonymity

Consumer education should be priority

In such a climate, spending on consumer education should be a priority for both industry and regulators so that consumers can make the right choices concerning the supplement or diet that is right for them.

The point was highlighted last week when the FDA moved to caution consumers over certain products aimed at people with sexual health problems.

This was yet another example of products being marketed on the Internet making claims that could not be backed up by science, potentially damaging an industry that is fighting to be taken seriously by some groups of consumers.

And loud applause then for the FDA, who announced last week the results of a survey that analysed 17 dietary supplements marketed on the Internet to treat erectile dysfunction and enhance sexual performance in men.

I don’t know if these are the same products that are advertised in e-mails that regularly clutter up my inbox, but it is good to know that somewhere out there, they are being policed.

And I am sure I am not alone in my scepticism for such products when I see such advertisements popping up offering me all kinds of benefits ranging from exceptional 'growth' that results in the need for larger underpants, to ‘guaranteeing’ my girlfriend purrs for a week!

Any products with claims that are not based on science and do not live up to the claims they make give the rest of the dietary supplements industry a bad name, and prey on those in society who prefer the anonymity of the Internet to the perceived embarrassment of face-to-face contact.

Consumers cautioned

So good news that the Adminstration then moved to caution consumers not to purchase or consume seven of the so-called dietary supplements because they contain active ingredients “similar or identical” to some found in prescription drugs.

The timing was right for the FDA response, and the dietary supplements industry in the US should also be applauded for such a rapid and loud welcome of the FDA’s policing of these “rogue” supplements.

But the problem is not exclusive to the US, nor is it limited to sexual health products.

Only recently, so-called dietary supplements were and still are being marketed on the Internet as offering protection from avian flu.

Back in February, Edzard Ernst, a professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, said that there was no scientific evidence to support the claims from natural products available on the Internet to protect against avian flu.

And it is not even guaranteed that the real contents of the supplements is actually listed on the label.

Caution over claims

Yet again the dietary supplements industry was responsible and quick to distance itself from such products with various industry organisations voicing caution over such claims associated with these products.

Shutting down or silencing such websites is not easy, and an easier solution must surely be to educate and caution consumers about such products.

This involves following the current course of action by both regulators and the industry itself: both must be seen and heard publicly to be cleaning up these rogue products that, at best, undermine the industry and, at worst, put lives of consumers at risk.

This will undoubtedly cost industry and regulators to run educational campaigns, but the rewards will be a consumer base with a higher level of understanding of the real benefits of specific supplements and a higher level of trust in the products themselves.

And by getting rid of such products maybe my inbox will be cleaner too. - (Stephen Daniells)

Stephen Daniells is the Food Science Reporter for NutraIngredients.com and NutraIngredients-USA.com. He has a PhD in Chemistry from Queen's University Belfast and has worked in research in the Netherlands and France.

Source: Decision News Media

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