Tips on Supplement Safety

Consumers wading into the booming dietary supplement market have a big question: How to know which ones to trust?

There's no good answer, responds Varro Tyler, a Purdue University emeritus professor and author of ``The Honest Herbal.''

Some manufacturers claim that echinacea, for example, is backed by more than 400 scientific reports of its effectiveness against colds, said David Schardt of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. But most are tests in animals or of injected echinacea, not the pills sold in the United States. Peer-reviewed science, he said, has not yet proved a benefit.

Nor is it a safe assumption that the product is what the customer buys.

Take ginseng, an Asian root purported to cure complaints from colds to impotence. When Consumer Reports tested 10 brands in 1995, it found huge variations in the supposed active ingredient, with one brand containing almost none. The government warned in December that some brands of liquid ginseng contain up to 34 percent alcohol.

Some consumer tips:

Check the label for the word ``standardized.'' That suggests ``it contains a certain amount of active constituent per dose,'' Tyler said.

Check out a company's reputation. Some large drug companies, which must meet government safety and quality standards to manufacture medicines, are getting into the supplement business.

Avoid bargain herbs. ``If something is too cheap, it probably isn't what it says it is,'' Tyler said.

Consult a health professional about taking supplements, the Food and Drug Administration says.

Seek out information, such as American Herbal Products Association handbooks that discuss scientific studies of certain supplements and potential side effects. The National Institutes of Health provides some information on supplements it considers risky, such as the hormone DHEA. Scientific studies appear on Medline, a database run by the National Library of Medicine available free through the Internet.

But don't believe commercial endorsements on the Internet, experts advise.

AP-NY-02-22-98 1345EST; Copyright 1997 The Associated Press. The information contained in the AP news report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed without prior written authority of The Associated Press.

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