BROADCAST DATE : Nov 20, 2015

Vitamins and Supplements: Magic Pills

As many as three out of four Canadians use natural health products. From herbal remedies to minerals, vitamins and other supplements, it’s a billion dollar industry that includes everyone from Big Pharma to Mom and Pop operations. They're products packed with promises, but what’s actually in the bottle? Could we be taking too much? And could they actually be harmful to your health?

  • Health Canada acknowledges "weak evidence" for approving herbal, vitamin supplements
  • New rules have more than 90 per cent of new products approved, often within days
  • Annual sales in Canada total about $1.4 billion

November 12, 2015

Supplements, including herbal remedies and vitamins, are frequently approved for sale in Canada with only minimal review and based on what Health Canada acknowledges is "weak evidence.”

Our investigation, which examines the safety and risk of dietary supplements, also found that government oversight has been eroded under pressure from the supplements industry, which has been anxious to cash in on the latest health-care trends.

Health Canada statistics show that it now approves more than 90 per cent of applications to sell new natural health products. And under updated rules, products can be approved in as little as 10 days.

However, several recent studies have raised concerns about the quality and safety of many supplements.

For example, research in New Zealand published earlier this year found that 83 per cent of fish oil supplements tested exceeded maximum industry standards for rancidity.

Some leading researchers also say there is mounting evidence that many of the most popular supplements don't live up to their claims and could even be dangerous.

"It you take a megavitamin you actually can hurt yourself," said author and University of Pennsylvania infectious disease specialist Dr. Paul Offit. "You actually can increase your risk of cancer, increase your risk of heart disease."

Michael Kruse, chairman of the advocacy group Bad Science Watch, said that by pushing natural health products through the approvals process, Health Canada is failing Canadian consumers.

"People are spending millions of dollars on these products every year and most of them have no evidence of efficacy," he said.

"They're being duped by a manufacturing lobby that really is focused on profit and not on the person's health."

About three-quarters of Canadians regularly take natural health products such as vitamins, minerals, fish oil and herbal remedies, a 2010 Ipsos-Reid survey found.

Annual sales in Canada total about $1.4 billion, and supplements must be approved by Health Canada's Natural and Non-Prescription Health Products directorate before they go on sale.

The rules were established in 2004 in response to concerns about the potential dangers of unregulated products and to consumer demand for greater choice.

Industry spokesperson Helen Long, president of the Canadian Health Foods Association, describes Canadian oversight of supplements as "one of the strongest regulatory frameworks in the world."

"Before a product even goes to sale you must provide proof that your product works, that it has quality ingredients, that it's effective, that it does what it says it will do on the bottle," said Long.

But the fifth estate's investigation raises questions about how Health Canada enforces those rules.

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