Sun, 25 May 2003

Food supplements, a thriving business

Tertiani ZB Simanjuntak and Hera Diani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

A poor diet, not enough exercise, too much alcohol and cigarettes and overexposure to unrelenting heat and pollution are just a few of the complaints commonly heard from middle-class professionals about how unhealthy their lifestyle is.

But changing one's lifestyle may not fit in with the demands of most daily schedules and, of course, is not that easy, even though the fear of developing cancer or another fatal disease associated with an unhealthy lifestyle continues to nag at most people.

Craving an instant fix for their health concerns, the middle- class segment of society has become the most lucrative marketing target for various food supplements, dietary pills, vitamins and minerals.

The more expensive a product is, the better it sells. And most of the bestsellers are imported.

A massive influx of these products on the local market and a growing trend of food supplement consumption has given Ida Marlinda, who heads food supplement monitoring at the Indonesian Consumers Foundation (YLKI), enough reason to be highly concerned.

"What worries me most is the lack of control and monitoring by the government on the distribution and consumption of food supplements," she told The Jakarta Post in a recent interview.

Food supplements contain a "dietary ingredient" that is intended to add to diets, and which may include: vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids and substances such as enzymes, organ tissues, glandulars and metabolites.

These products can either be extracts or concentrates, and can come in a variety of forms, such as tablets, capsules, soft gels, gel caps, liquids or powders.

Ida said, however, that all of these supplements, unless they are just herbs that have been dried and put into a capsule, have been chemically manipulated in some way. But that does not have to be a problem if consumers know what they are really taking, she said.

The Ministry of Health places food supplements in a special category under the general umbrella of "food" instead of drugs, and places the tasks of registration and monitoring -- including the promotion -- with the Food and Drug Monitoring Agency (BPOM).

It was BPOM who ordered the withdrawal of 100 nutritional supplements produced by Pan Pharmaceuticals of Australia earlier this month after that country's health authorities suspended the company's license over allegations it used raw materials that had not been tested for safety and that it manipulated laboratory test results.

Many consumers of Pan's products had reportedly fallen ill, and in a number of cases seriously, with some saying they suffered from hallucinations and suicidal thoughts.

Ida praised the decision made by BPOM head Sampurno, but she believes greater concerns revolving around food supplement issues have yet to be addressed.

Dr. Marius Widjajarto, the chairman of the Indonesia Health Consumers Empowerment Foundation (YPKKI), pointed out the loose regulation on food supplements in the country for being the culprit behind unchecked distribution of these products.

The only requirement for passing registration at BPOM is that the distributors produce a certificate stating the quality and safety of these products, which is issued by the manufacturers' country of origin, he said.

As in any other country, there is no regulation for verifying the ingredients or the quality of the supplement.

In an interview with the Post, Marius said that from all the food supplements stocked on store shelves, only 10 percent of them have been accredited with going through a safe production process.

"Wouldn't you be curious about buying some supplements whose registration code was printed on a label stuck on the box instead of being printed directly on the package as it should be? Has it really passed the registration process?" Marius asked.

Ida underlined the overuse -- or abuse -- of the word "natural" in the marketing of supplements, which she suspected was aimed at putting consumers' minds at ease by giving them the impression that if something is natural, then it must also be safe.

Most advertisements also give the impression that some supplement pills have the ability to cure any health problem instead of simply helping to speed up the metabolism's recovery.

Ida said that most food supplements had similar ingredients to medicine, but in a lower quantity. Unlike medicine, however, the consumption of supplements is done only on suggestion.

"The exaggerated ads that promote supplements as having the same curative effects as medicine appeals to consumers, and no warning is ever issued by BPOM," she explained.

"The supplements are sold as medicine, as there are guidelines advising a regular intake of a particular dosage with the promise of higher effectiveness after taking the product for a certain period of time. The difference is, unlike those people who take medicine, supplement users are not covered by manufacturers' insurance."

Although no one has ever complained about supplements to YLKI, Ida urged for better consumer protection as many studies abroad were finding out that some vitamin and mineral supplements could be harmful to people's health with long-term use.

In a study done in the U.S., researchers found that out of a wide variety of randomly chosen herbal supplements, most of them contained only small amounts of potent herbs. Some even contained grass and weeds and none of the ingredients listed on the label.

So do we really need to take food supplements?

"Yes, if you are recovering from a disease, are over the age of 60, or you work hard and long hours. However, you should never use supplements as a replacement for food, because food actually contains hundreds of different substances that interact in ways that a supplement cannot duplicate. So make time to eat decent meals and just go back to eating natural food," Ida suggested.