Evaluating wellness claims

This exercise is a part of Educator Guide: Tainted Supplements Flood the Market / View Guide

These questions are based on the Science News (SN) article Tainted supplements flood the market.”

Please note: This article refers to supplements that were marketed to improve sex drive. Please be aware that terminology associated with describing such supplements is used in the article and may not be appropriate for all students of all ages.  

1. What is the central idea of the article?

Possible student response: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration flagged hundreds of dietary supplements as containing prescription drugs and other potentially harmful chemicals. Yet only about half of those drugs were recalled by their makers, a recent study showed.

2. What were many of the tainted dietary supplements marketed to allegedly help?

Possible student response: Most supplements were marketed to help with weight loss, improve sex drive or build muscle.

3. What are the supplements legally allowed to contain?

Possible student response: Supplements are only supposed to contain dietary ingredients.

4. Approximately how many American adults have taken dietary supplements? How many supplements are available in the United States?

Possible student response: More than half of American adults have reported taking dietary supplements, and more than 85,000 supplements are estimated to be available in the United States.

5. Between 2007 and 2016, how many dietary supplements did the U.S. Food and Drug Administration determine contained potentially harmful pharmaceutical drugs? How many tainted supplements were voluntarily recalled by their makers?

Possible student response: The FDA determined that 776 supplements contained potentially harmful pharmaceutical drugs from 2007 to 2016. Only 360 of those supplements were recalled by the manufacturers. The others remained on the market.

6. Does the U.S. government test all dietary supplements and enforce regulations on them?

Possible student response: Dietary supplements are not subjected to the same rigorous testing and approval process that’s required for pharmaceutical drugs before they go on the market. In cases where the FDA tests and finds dangerous ingredients, the FDA can issue public warnings or ask that the manufacturer voluntarily remove the product.

7. Are companies legally allowed to claim that dietary supplements have health benefits regardless of whether or not there’s scientific evidence to support such claims?

Possible student response: According to physician Pieter Cohen of the Cambridge Health Alliance in Cambridge, Mass., companies can legally claim that supplements have health benefits without supporting evidence.

8. How many emergency room visits each year are caused by dietary supplements? How many hospitalizations each year are related to heart problems caused by dietary supplements? How many liver injuries were caused by dietary supplements in 2013?

Possible student response: About 23,000 emergency room visits each year are due to health problems related to dietary supplements, a 2015 study found. Approximately 2,100 patients are hospitalized annually, often for symptoms related to heart trouble. In 2013, dietary supplements caused 20 percent of drug-induced liver injuries recorded in the Drug-Induced Liver Injury Network registry.

9. What would you like to see done based on the results reported in this article?

Possible student response: More thorough testing of supplements and other products is needed, as are stronger regulations that would hold companies accountable for distributing tainted and potentially harmful products.

10. Can you think of one general research idea related to this article that you could do (even though you may not have the equipment readily available to test the idea)?

Possible student response: I could measure the amount of another listed ingredient in a supplement and compare the results to information on the supplement label. I could also test for and measure the amounts of unlisted ingredients in a supplement.