Researchers from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published data in the New Journal of Medicine suggesting that 23,000 emergency room (ER) visits every year were caused by reactions to dietary supplements intake. Industry groups strongly disagree with the determination that supplements are unsafe.

The researchers collected data from 63 emergency departments from 2004 to 2013 and extrapolated (based on 3,667 cases) that 23,005 ER visits per year are caused by "adverse events related to dietary supplements." Supposedly, many such visits involved young adults (ages 20-34) and unsupervised children that consumed herbal or complementary nutritional products, though the latter were excluded from the analysis. The researchers believe weight-management and energy-support products were the most likely to bring people to the ER because of heart palipations, chest pain and related issues. In addition, older individuals that had trouble swallowing micronutrient formulas also were among the ER visits. Over 90% of the patients were discharged without needed to be admitted to the hospital.

The Natural Products Association (NPA) has questioned why the researchers decided to look at ER data instead of adverse event data that FDA collects.

Daniel Fabricant, Ph.D., NPA's executive director and CEO, stated, "The facts are that adverse events from supplements are extremely low given their widespread usage, and most of these are the result of three factors: accidents, people not consulting with their doctor, or misuse of a product combined with other health factors. Supplements are safe, which is why millions of Americans use them every day.” 

FDA's numbers tell a different story than what the researchers report. In 2012, just 3,249 adverse events were reported, for instance. NPA also stated, "Even if the study estimates are accurate, the number of hospital visits suggested to relate to dietary supplements would represent 0.0001687 percent of the 136.3 million hospital visits each year, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)."

The Council for Responsible Nutrition addresses that brought individuals to the ER, such as choking on supplements: "There have been great innovations made to assist consumers who have trouble swallowing capsules and tablets. Adult supplement users have many options, including liquids, gummies, melts or effervescent powders."

As for the children that accidentally ingest supplements, "We recommend that supplement users store dietary supplement products in safe places, out of a child’s reach; discard supplements after the expiration date; and read and follow label instructions. In addition, we recommend consumers talk with their doctor or pediatrician about their family’s supplement use.”


Published in WholeFoods Magazine Online, 10/15/15