Regulation of The Supplement Industry: The DSHEA Law

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Navigating the complex landscape of dietary supplements can be daunting, especially given the gaps in regulation since the implementation of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994. Fullscript’s online formulary offers a reliable solution by rigorously vetting companies and products for quality assurance. The Fullscript platform employs clinical experts to assure that they are providing not just quality products but also medical oversight to guide consumers and healthcare providers to the best supplement choices.

In a market teeming with hype but short on transparency, the potential for counterfeits, undeclared drugs, and ineffective products is significant. This article dives into the details of the DSHEA law and shows how Fullscript stands as a trusted source that simplifies the journey to better health through supplements. Supplement-Sciences has partnered with Fullscript to provide a 20% discount and free shipping on every order over $50, so you always have access to the highest quality supplements.

The DSHEA Law: What Does It Say?

The U.S. Federal Law of 1994, known as DSHEA, sets the rules and guidelines for dietary supplements and their components. This law was enacted to offer a regulated environment for the dietary supplement industry, focusing on safe manufacturing practices and transparent labeling. It also aims to give consumers useful information about the products they use.

Key Elements of the DSHEA:

  • Definition: The law classifies dietary supplements as products that may contain vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs, and other nutritional elements to enhance one’s diet.
  • Product Safety: The law holds manufacturers accountable for the safety of their products prior to selling them. The U.S. FDA does not require pre-sale approval for these supplements. But if a product proves to be harmful, the FDA has the authority to remove it from the market.
  • Information on Labels: A “Supplement Facts” section is mandated on the product’s label, detailing the ingredients and their amounts. Companies can mention how the supplement might influence bodily functions but cannot say it will diagnose or cure diseases unless approved by the FDA.
  • Manufacturing Standards: The law mandates that producers of dietary supplements adhere to Good Manufacturing Practices. These guidelines cover all stages of production, from sourcing raw materials to testing the final product and maintaining records.
  • Regulations on New Ingredients: If a dietary supplement includes a component not sold in the U.S. prior to October 15, 1994, the manufacturer has to notify the FDA and furnish proof of the ingredient’s safety before launching the product.

In theory, the DSHEA law aims to regulate the dietary supplement industry by setting clear definitions, safety standards, and labeling requirements.

But Does DSHEA Protect Consumers? According to an article published in the American Journal of Public Health, the answer would be, “Too Little, Too Late: Ineffective Regulation of Dietary Supplements in the United States.” [PMC4330859]


The dietary supplement industry is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), primarily under provisions of DSHEA.

Regulatory Definition

According to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, dietary supplements include a large heterogeneous group of products intended to supplement the diet that are not better described as drugs, foods, or food additives. Supplements may contain, in whole or as a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, or extract, any combination of 1 or more vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs or other botanicals, and other substances used to increase total dietary intake, including enzymes, organ tissues, and oils. They must be intended for ingestion; sold in the form of capsules, tablets, soft gels, gel caps, powders, or liquids; and not be marketed as food items.
Source. Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994.1

Safety and Efficacy

The DSHEA disallows supplements that carry a significant risk of causing harm. It also empowers the Secretary of Health and Human Services to promptly ban substances considered immediate threats and allows the FDA to set guidelines for good manufacturing practices. The legislation necessitates advance notice for supplements introduced after October 15, 1994, in the U.S. market. Non-compliance with these rules renders the products as hazardous, tainted, incorrectly labeled, or otherwise in violation of the law.

On the flip side, the law doesn’t require supplements to undergo effectiveness checks and demands only minimal safety data for new ingredients. No advance notice is mandatory for products with existing ingredients. The FDA has limited power over supplements that were available before October 1994. These products can be sold in any strength, as long as the label mentions the daily recommended value when applicable. For instance, Vitamin D3 is sold in doses of 50,000 international units, and the label specifies it covers 12,500% of the daily recommended value. When no daily value is known, such details can be omitted from the label. The law also permits the sale of supplements containing any mix of ingredients. [PMC4330859]

Notification of New Ingredients

Even though DSHEA requires advance notice for new ingredients in dietary supplements, the rule’s enforcement has faced challenges. From 1994 to 2012, the FDA got sufficient notice for new ingredients in merely 170 supplements, which is just a fraction of those entering the U.S. market. Pinpointing those who break the rules is also tough; in a 10-month span in 2013, the FDA sent warnings to 37 companies about 55 risky or tainted products. These products included unnotified new ingredients, some of which are prescription drugs or similar compounds, drugs withdrawn for safety reasons, and other substances with questionable safety profiles.

Although DSHEA does allow the FDA to examine safety data before new ingredients hit the market, this part of the law hasn’t fully taken effect. The criteria for sufficient safety evidence remain unclear. A draft guideline put forth in 2011 still awaits final approval. Even if these guidelines become active, doubts persist that they will fully address safety concerns. The guidelines might overvalue traditional use, skip the need for human safety trials before going to market, and let companies selectively present positive data to the FDA. Additionally, DSHEA allows the sale of supplements with new, possibly unsafe, ingredients until a legal decision supports the FDA’s stance. [PMC4330859]

Quality Assurance

In 2007, the FDA released guidelines for good manufacturing practices (cGMP) aimed at standardizing the quality of dietary supplements. These guidelines cover areas like product testing, label accuracy, and quality control but don’t delve into the actual safety of the supplement ingredients. These rules are also not mandatory for manufacturers to follow. Consequently, many companies hesitate to fully adopt these guidelines, especially for plant-based supplements that can differ greatly in potency due to various environmental factors.

A 2010 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that 93% of 40 tested dietary supplements contained trace amounts of at least one hazardous substance like lead or arsenic. In 2011, 73% of supplement makers inspected by the FDA did not comply with one or more rules. A separate study found that 59% of tested plant-based supplements had plant species not mentioned on the label, and 83% of the companies tested had replaced active ingredients. The lack of adherence may be partly due to insufficient oversight; in 2013, the FDA inspected only 416 out of an estimated 4,000 manufacturers subject to cGMP rules, which is a small fraction of the total number of supplement companies registered with the FDA.

Even for manufacturers who fully adopt the cGMP guidelines, there are still issues. Since each manufacturer can set their own standards, the same supplement made by different companies can vary in makeup, strength, and how easily the body can use it. Manufacturers don’t have to verify all ingredients they receive, and meeting cGMP standards doesn’t mean a product is free from all possible contaminants. Unlike prescription drugs that must meet national standards, supplement makers can choose whether or not to comply with similar rules. Only a handful of supplement brands are verified by the U.S. Pharmacopoeia. A recent study found significant inconsistencies in the actual versus stated concentrations of vitamin D3 in various brands, with the only reliable results coming from those verified by the U.S. Pharmacopoeia. Similar inconsistencies have been noted in plant-based supplements. [PMC4330859]

Monitoring Safety

The main way to track supplement safety is through a voluntary reporting system run by the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. However, less than 1% of all adverse events actually get reported, and inconsistent data hampers enforcement efforts. A law passed in 200 potential side effects to the FDA, but the number is still far below what the American Association of Poison Control Centers receives. An FDA analysis showed that many mild or moderate reports should actually be classified as serious.

The system faces multiple challenges. It depends on consumers knowing that they should report issues and understanding the FDA’s role. Reports need to meet a data minimum, but consumers aren’t told what that minimum is. There’s no legal need to report serious events if they don’t meet these data criteria. The FDA also has a hard time proving that a supplement caused an issue because they don’t get medical records or product samples. Also, reports made to other organizations don’t have to be forwarded to the FDA. As a result, the system’s shortcomings haven’t been adequately addressed, and the lack of data makes it hard for the FDA to push for changes in the law. [PMC4330859]

Health Claims

Supplements can’t say they treat or cure specific diseases, but they can make general health or body function claims. For health claims that suggest a lower disease risk, some scientific proof has to be sent to the FDA. For body function claims, that proof just needs to be on file. There are no set standards for how good that evidence has to be, and sometimes just one unverified article is enough. If the claim is part of the product name or shown in pictures, it faces even less scrutiny. Labels must have a disclaimer saying the FDA hasn’t reviewed the claims, but many consumers ignore these, especially if they’re hard to read or understand.

Labeling practices are often lacking or misleading. An official investigation found that most supplement labels are hard to understand and inconsistent. They often don’t clearly state the supplement’s purpose, list the active ingredient, or provide safety information like potential side effects or maximum dosage. Many labels are hard to understand, and 85% of them don’t even list the maximum dose that should be taken. [PMC4330859]

Advertising and Marketing

Marketing plays a key role because many people in the US see ads for dietary supplements. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) oversees these ads to make sure they’re honest and backed by evidence. Even so, a study found that most people in the US have overly high expectations about what these supplements can do.

The FTC put out a guidance document in 1998 with suggestions for ads, but it doesn’t require ads to get approved first. Over time, legal cases have made it clearer how the FTC identifies ads that are misleading. However, recent court decisions have leaned more toward protecting the free speech rights of supplement companies rather than consumer protection. These courts say federal rules can’t overly limit what a company can say in ads. They’ve set a higher bar for proving an ad is misleading and often favor using disclaimers over banning claims outright.

After a product is on the market, keeping an eye on it is tough. One study found that more than half of websites selling supplements made disease-related claims, and half of those didn’t have the needed disclaimer. Even more of these claims showed up in non-English newspapers. An official report confirmed that, despite efforts to monitor them, many supplement makers still make false or risky claims before the FTC can catch them. [PMC4330859]

Enforcement Challenges

Enforcing the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) is tough. The law puts the responsibility on the FDA to show a supplement is unsafe based on how it’s labeled for use. This means even if a product causes harm when used in an off-label way, it doesn’t count against its safety. If the FDA issues a ban, it has to back it up with strong evidence or lift the ban. Plus, companies can keep selling until a court upholds the ban.

The DSHEA says that each case of a tainted supplement has to start from scratch legally. So if a company just changes one harmful ingredient, all the FDA’s previous work could be for nothing. Some supplements that other countries have banned are still available in the US because the FDA has to review each case one at a time.

Part of the struggle comes from logistics. A report found that 28% of supplement companies don’t even register with the FDA. And for those that do, the FDA often doesn’t have the correct contact info. As a result, less than 70% of supplements that got serious recall notices actually got pulled from the market between 2004 and 2011.

Some states have tried to make their own stricter laws, especially for products like ephedrine. But this can create legal issues. Stricter state laws could clash with DSHEA’s aim to make supplements widely available. They could also run into problems with the Constitution’s rules about how laws affect business across state lines. [PMC4330859]

How Fullscript Protects Supplement Consumers

So, consumers and healthcare providers are right to be skeptical of the supplement industry. Even after decades with the DSHEA law in place, significant gaps in safety and quality remain. While the law has its merits, the burden largely falls on consumers to make informed decisions about what they put into their bodies. In this challenging landscape, Fullscript’s online formulary offers a reliable solution for those seeking trustworthy supplements.

Fullscript sets itself apart by thoroughly vetting companies and products, ensuring that what you see on the label is what you actually get. This rigorous process provides a level of quality assurance that is often elusive in the supplement industry. If you’ve ever been overwhelmed by the myriad of choices available, Fullscript also makes it easier by narrowing down your options to those that meet high standards.

Also, the formulary works closely with healthcare providers who offer personalized recommendations to fit individual health needs. This integration into the healthcare community helps assure that there is guidance toward the supplements that are not just high in quality but also appropriate for specific health goals.

Quality Brand Supplements At 20% Off

Supplement-Sciences has partnered with Fullscript’s professional-grade supplement formulary to provide a 20% discount on every order, so you always have access to the highest quality supplements.

To Sum It Up

Dietary supplements are regulated in the United States by the FDA under the provisions of the DSHEA. Multiple challenges in regulatory enforcement have significant public health consequences, including inadequate evaluation of safety, insufficient requirements for efficacy, minimal surveillance for unsubstantiated labeling and marketing claims, poor quality assurance and control, and gaps in reporting of adverse events are part of the wider supplement industry. However, Supplement-Sciences partnership with Fullscript allows consumers to buy quality products at 20% off the manufacturer’s retail price.

This Article is Not a Substitute for Medical Advice

Dietary supplements are not designed to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The Supplement Sciences website seeks to provide comprehensive access to the most relevant supplement information along with convenient online ordering. We do not provide medical advice and cannot guarantee that every product suggested is completely without risk. Since each person is unique in their health history and medication use, it is important to discuss supplements with your personal physician. Specifically, pregnant women and individuals being treated for cancer or liver or kidney problems must consult their physician about every nutritional supplement they plan to take. People taking medications for the treatment of HIV or with a history of organ transplant must not take supplements without consulting with their physician.

About the Author

Stephanie Figon, MS, RDN, LD

Creator of Supplement Sciences and NutriScape.NET. As a dietitian since 1992, Steph has had experiences in consulting, 15 years in clinical, and has operated a private practice nutrition counseling office for since 2011. Log in to comment and save this article on your board or send your comments to

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