Vitamin-Mineral-Herb Mania, Quackery and The FDA

In the distant past, medicine, religion and the priesthood were intertwined. In most civilizations studied, the priest was the medicine man to whom people went for help when sick. These priests found very quickly that giving the patient a potion from animal parts, plants, tree bark or herbs made lots of them better. Occasionally, they would come up with a real winner like aspirin from the bark of the white willow tree. For the most part, however, what they gave was harmless and ineffective. However, neither the medicine man nor the patient knew it. Rather, they both believed with the strength of their religion that the potion was miraculous and helpful. So, there is an intense, almost an inborn belief in humans to want to believe that medicine, vitamins, pills, and herbs can confer good health and a long life. A modern wag has wryly commented that the main difference between man and animals is the desire by humans to take pills. The point of the above comments is to remind you of the placebo effect, which basically means that if a person really wants to believe a positive effect is occurring, he or she will be absolutely certain that this is a fact. And that is why the Scientific Method described in the preceding section, is necessary. Personal bias, whether by the physician or the patient, has no place in deciding whether a heart valve, a medication or, for that matter, an herb or vitamin really works.

Mania, a frantic belief and action bordering on the crazed, is relatively new in the health field. When it was found that a person could take huge doses of certain vitamins without apparent injury, then things began to change. We went through the phase of megavitamins, followed by the frenzied search for that next elixir of life, colloidal minerals. Now we are in the midst of the orgiastic consumption of herbs and over-the-counter hormones, hoping that finally this will be the ONE. How has such mania occurred, especially in the present time with the proven progress in modern medicine, unequaled in human history?

It is a peculiar confluence of events. First, there is the desire of people to take something which can give them a health edge. Second is the proven fact of quackery, charlatanism and fraud, just plain outright lying, that pervades the vitamin-mineral-herb industry. Let me coin the term, Vit-Min-Herb, for this industry and their many products. Third is the fact that the Food and Drug Administration has no authority to regulate the Vit-Min-Herb industry as this field is specifically excluded by law as long as the preparation is labeled “food supplement”. The FDA does regulate foods, medical devices and prescription drugs, but not these other supplements. It means that the Vit-Min-Herb industry can say and do just about anything they want without fear of legal restraint. They are not supposed to make health claims but we all know they do in a variety of ways. A significant part of this industry then is nothing more than the snake oil peddler of the 19th century who sold alcohol-laced tonics from the back of his horse drawn wagon. Only now these products are dressed up in fancy labels, media hype, TV glitz, testimonials from glamorous muscular men and fetching females, all of whom swear by the product. The shopping mall nutrition store salesman, perhaps a high school graduate, becomes the source of health knowledge and purveyor of products to correct just about every ill. The same can be said about multi-media sales that function like a pyramid club, the Amway approach. For some inexplicable reason, a friend or neighbor becomes an expert on nutrition and health and, oh, by the way, you can get all of these benefits through the products he or she sells. And, of course, you, too, can become a distributor, sell to your friends, and make money besides.

Modern science, using the Scientific Method, has brought us enormous improvements – a safe water supply, many public health measures, computers, cars, telephone and even the Internet. In medicine, we have proven drugs and medical devices to help us when we do get sick. Longer life span has been granted us through scientific study of exercise and better eating habits. Yet, when the Vit-Min-Herb salesman on TV, or a media ad shows up, we change our thinking. We just feel a need to do something extra for a potential thin slice of additional good health, based solely on someone saying it is good. Are we any different from Ponce de Leon, the Spanish explorer, who searched Florida endlessly and fruitlessly in the 1600s for the Fountain of Youth?

Well, having leaned on the Vit-Min-Herb industry, there is a great deal of scientific knowledge available about how to get and stay healthy, and about vitamins, minerals and herbs. There is also a great deal of information available on how to increase your longevity. So let’s move along and look at each of the following sections on weight control, healthy eating and fiber.

Frank W. Jackson MD
© 1998 fwj
updated 2011