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What's in your supplements? Even the experts are confused

Staff writer |
Fairleigh Dickinson University's PublicMind finds US healthcare professionals hold clear misperceptions on differences between "over-the-counter" (OTC) and dietary supplement products in general, and more specifically in the omega-3 category, among the most popular dietary supplements in the United States.

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PublicMind data highlight cause for increased awareness by consumers using omega-3 dietary supplements, on the heels of New York Attorney General (NYAG), U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) and U.S. Senator statements that herbal supplements may not contain key ingredients noted on their bottle labels.

Earlier this month, four major retailers, GNC, Target, Walgreens and Wal-Mart, were cited by the NYAG as selling vitamins and supplements that did not contain the active ingredients listed on their labels.

"In light of recent reports on the actual content of dietary supplements sold at major retailers, it is important that healthcare professionals who may be confused about the appropriate use of dietary supplement omega-3 products take heed," said Rich Higginson, director of Consumer Research at PublicMind.

The PublicMind survey, conducted across a randomly selected sample of 200 U.S. physicians and 150 U.S. pharmacists, showed that less than half (41%) of these professionals correctly stated that OTC products are regulated and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), while dietary supplement products are not.

Survey respondents demonstrated a number of additional misperceptions about the distinction between OTC and dietary supplement products, their appropriate use in patients, and clinical guidance regarding their use including:

Mistaken belief that FDA-approved "OTC" omega-3 products exist: Among those physicians and pharmacists who had recommended a non-prescription omega-3 product to patients, more than four in five (85%) believed incorrectly that they had recommended an FDA-approved OTC product.

Mistaken belief that dietary supplements work similarly to prescription omega-3 products: 30% of pharmacists and 22% of physicians stated, incorrectly, that prescription and dietary supplement omega-3 products are similar in strength and content.

"Dietary supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for content, safety or manufacturing processes," said Higginson.

"With confusion among health care professionals it is likely this may be even more confusing to patients. Consumers may not know that there are no OTC omega-3s – only supplements or prescription products."

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