PhotoMany consumers have become fixated on dietary supplements or other nonprescription drugs that boast that they are “all natural.” But beware – many such products intend to take advantage of your shopping tendencies and may cause serious harm.

Cariny Nunez, an FDA health advisor for the Office of Minority Health, says that many scammers take advantage of consumers who shop at non-traditional markets – such as international stores, flea markets, or swap meets – do not speak English well, or do not have access to health care services or information.

“These scammers know that ethnic groups who may not speak or read English well, or who hold certain cultural beliefs, can be easy targets,” he said.

Not safe

One such belief that many hold is that a “natural” product is inherently better than others. Gary Coody, an FDA national health fraud coordinator, says that this is not necessarily the case. Many of these natural products are not all that they claim to be; in fact, in some cases they can contain hidden ingredients that actually make them less safe for some consumers.

But even when a nonprescription drug uses an approved drug ingredient, that doesn’t mean that it is using it in the right way. Many people forget that just because a drug ingredient is approved by the FDA, that does not mean that it is healthy at the amounts that a non-prescription drug might utilize it. Boosting the dosage of any drug ingredient can cause harm, even for those that may seem more innocuous.

But neither of these points accounts for much if the drug is not approved by doctors or regulating agencies. Non-traditional markets are well-known for stocking their shelves with items that cater to the ethnicities of those who shop there.

“It’s not surprising that people are more comfortable with familiar products that claim to come from their home country or are labeled and marketed in the consumer’s native language, whether they buy them at a U.S. market or get them from friends and family who have brought them from home,” said Nunez.

But this does not guarantee that these drugs are safe. The same can be said of weight loss pills that boast that they are “Made in the USA.” There is currently no law that prohibits companies from marketing a dietary supplement without FDA approval, so many of them could actually be dangerous to your health.

What to do

The FDA website lists several ways that consumers can identify if a drug or supplement is unsafe or a scam. Some of them include the use of personal testimonials in place of scientific evidence, buzz words like “miracle drug,” “new discovery,” or scientific breakthrough, and claims that the drug can act as a “quick fix” for any ailment.

As always, check to see if any domestic drug has FDA approval before buying or using it. But remember, dietary supplements do NOT need FDA approval to be marketed – whether they come from the U.S. or abroad. If you have any doubts about a drug or supplement, contact your doctor or healthcare provider to get their opinion.

For those who have taken a supplement or drug and had an adverse reaction, contact an FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinator here. You can also submit a report online via the FDA’s Medwatch.

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