The National Institutes of Health has a new online database, the Dietary Supplements Labels Database. This website allows you to look up the ingredients of over 2,000 brands of dietary supplements. You can look up your vitamins or supplements by brand, active ingredient, or manufacturer.

Keep in mind that this database will only tell you the ingredients — it will NOT tell you anything about the purity of those ingredients, their safety, their potency, or how or where they were grown. And most importantly, it will not tell you whether any vitamin or supplement works.

Drug companies have to show that prescription and over-the-counter drugs are safe and effective before they can be sold. But “dietary supplement” companies do NOT have to show that their products are safe and effective. In fact, the FDA cannot take action against a dietary supplement from the market until it has shown to cause actual harm! So drugs can’t be sold until they’ve been shown safe and effective, but “dietary supplements” can be sold until they’re shown to be actually harmful. This is despite the fact that “supplements” are not inherently safer than drugs.

Consumers tend to be (rightly) skeptical of drug companies. Yet ironically they don’t extend that skepticism to dietary supplement companies. Millions of people spend billions of dollars on “supplements” that have not been shown to be effective. Take Airborne, for instance – it’s one of the most popular and bestselling supplements on the market. Millions of people believe it can treat the common cold. Yet there’s no evidence that that’s the case — the Center for Science in the Public Interest recently settled a class action lawsuit against the makers of Airborne. (If you bought Airborne, you may be able to get a refund from the settlement — go here for info:

The reason that the FDA can’t do more to regulate the dietary supplement industry is because that industry — which hides behind its carefully crafted but frequently inaccurate image of being folksy, homespun, and dedicated to “natural health” — convinced Congress to pass the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994. Many consumers believe that the FDA carefully regulates supplements, but that’s not the case.

Bottom line: Be as skeptical about so-called “dietary supplements” (vitamins, herbs, minerals, homeopathic remedies, etc.) as you are about prescription drugs. In fact, you probably should be MORE skeptical. Drugs are at least required to show that they are safe and effective. Supplements are not. Even with all the flaws and gaps in the FDA’s review of drugs, it’s a whole lot better than nothing.

Here’s resources to learn more about supplements and how they are (barely) regulated: –