Vitals: Is Taking Supplements Safe in Australia?

The Supplement Industry in Australia is the world’s gold standard for consumer protection, but is it enough?

 

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In February 2016, the ABC reported that six Australians needed organ transplants in the past five years after taking herbal supplements.

Complimentary Medicines Australia (CMA) maintains that Australia has the most rigorous standards for the industry above anyone else, asserting that the concern is stemming from the US supplement industry which is vastly different. Still, Australians aren’t convinced. They want to know, are supplements safe?

   

The Accusations

 

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The ABC report asserts that a man required a liver transplant as a result of taking a protein powder containing green tea extract and another supplement containing garcinia cambogia.

Unlike green tea extract which has been the subject of many studies into hepatotoxicity including this article published by the World  Journal of Gastroenterology and another from the Medical Journal of Australia. The safety profile of garcinia cambogia, a plant grown natively in Indonesia, has not been as extensively studied. The large amounts of green tea extract, however, is what the man’s doctor believes was the cause for liver failure.

One of the biggest issues with cases like this one is the difficulty doctors have in ascertaining precise causality. The existing evidence base has been enough for Spain and France to ban the marketing and sale of  green tea extract product Exolise until the company has provided toxicological data and additional chemical analysis of the product.

In the same ABC report, another man took a supplement under the advisement of a doctor, for his degenerative eye disorder. When the man switched to an overseas provider of the same supplement, he discovered months later that he would need a new liver.

The presumed attacker? Green Tea extract, again.

   

The Defence

 

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Responding to a recent exposé by ABC regarding the dangers of supplements, the CMA asserts that it is unfair to compare the US supplement industry to that of Australia.

Whereas the US supplement industry is a wild west, regarded and managed like food products, the Australian supplement industry is treated with almost the same rigour as pharmaceutical medicine. The controls and standards are much more tedious for manufacturers, and this layer of protection is passed on to consumers.

While this is applicable for products manufactured in Australia, the CMA also stated that products manufactured overseas and purchased via the internet are not regulated to Australian standards, and herein lies the danger and uncertainty.

Differences in manufacturing processes, chemical synthesis and potency can all have potentially harmful outcomes for consumers.

   

Counterpoint

 

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Many Australians' are popping various supplements for weight loss, to prevent ailments and to make up for dietary lack. They have faith that they are taking something natural which seems like a positive and healthy option. All the while they may have been better served through traditional approaches to health such as diet, lifestyle and conventional medicine.

Purchasing supplements online and from overseas may seem harmless, because one would like to think that global health regulations all have our best interests at heart. However since industry regulations vary so much from country to country, it pays to be aware and cautious.

Consumers may be putting themselves at unnecessary risk by taking supplements with limited evidence to support their safety or efficacy. They may also be lured in by bold statements and clever marketing tactics, to spend money on supplements that may be harmless but provide no tangible health benefits.

At worst, as in the cases with our green tea extract consumers, they may be doing serious harm. In light of all this, the manufacturing protections and regulations on a global scale stack up a little short.

   

The Final Word

 

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According to the CMA, the Australian supplement industry contributes $4.2-billion per year to the economy. The Guardian estimates that 75% of Australians take some form of supplementation.

Given that the supplement industry is a strong contributor to the economy in Australia, care should be taken before influencers like the media or sites like ours make any accusations.

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Outside of Australia, 60% of the time supplements contain something not mentioned on the label.

This is concerning because it goes completely against Australian law and process. Therefore, it could certainly be said, that Australians should exercise very conservative decision making when ordering supplements from outside Australia.

Saving a few bucks to potentially lose a liver or your life could hardly be worth the risk. Consumers should also consult with doctors and health specialists regarding the supplements they take, testing can be done to determine individual requirements.

Where nobody in his right mind would seek the advice of only one doctor, bearing the expression “a second opinion,” that same person would do themselves a service by applying that logic to their complimentary medication choices.

It is, after all, complimentary, not primary. The legislators, the doctors and the patients of Australia should all proceed with caution.

 

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