If You Choose the Herbal Life, It's Buyer Beware

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All things being equal, most budget-minded consumers would rather hand over $15 for a month's supply of St. John's wort than pony up for a doctor's visit and a prescription for Zoloft. But are all things actually equal? Should the makers of so-called dietary supplements — the myriad capsules, pills and potions found at your local Vitamin Shoppe — be permitted to tout the health benefits of their products without being subject to the FDA review process? And can these supplements be thought of as cures for disease? These are the questions raging around the $6 billion-a-year dietary supplement industry. And supplement manufacturers got a mixed answer Wednesday, when the FDA continued its withdrawal from the fray and ruled that manufacturers can legally claim to treat a variety of symptoms that are considered part of "common passages of life," like menopause and adolescence, but cannot claim to cure actual diseases. Maintenance claims can stand without FDA review, but claims implying curative powers over disease cannot.

In other words, the next time you go to the store, desperately searching for a vial of herbs to ease your way through say, the rigors of tax preparation, you might find labels that read: "Vitamin ZZZZ: Helps You Relax." You won't, however, find supplements claiming to cure your impending sleeplessness or panic attacks. Likewise, you'll find products that "maintain memory function," but nothing that claims to reverse serious memory loss. And even though some products' claims can make those herbs seem awfully tempting, TIME medical writer Christine Gorman warns, "the watchword for consumers is caveat emptor. People have the mistaken belief that there is scientific proof these supplements do what they say they will, while most of the claims are just wishful thinking." And, Gorman adds, as the FDA continues to back away from supplement regulation, the onus falls increasingly on consumers. "People need to do their homework before taking any supplement, and they need to tell their doctor exactly what they're taking — even if their doctor looks at them like they're crazy."