Posted by: Francis Koster Published: September 7, 2020

What do we do when health foods are unhealthy?

As my youngest grandson’s first birthday approached, and a Zoom birthday party was being planned, I was scrambling around trying to think of something I could order on-line that would make him (and his parents) happy and be small enough I would be willing to pay for express shipping.

 Yes, I had failed to pay attention when my wife kept reminding me that if I was going to send something, I need to do it last week. Sigh.

How about candy? Well, I am not a fan of adding sugar to a kid’s diet, so that was out.   How about chewy vitamins?  They would maybe do some good health-wise, and maybe dodge or reduce the sugar bullet.

As a father of four, and grandfather of a growing number, and a retired pediatric healthcare administrator, I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to protect children.  So I went online to try to figure out what kids’ vitamin would be a good choice.  I also looked up safety – and everything I learned was bad.

It raised my eyebrows to learn that vitamins are considered a food, not a medicine, so they are not regulated for safety, labeling, or manufacturing inspections like medical pills.  It startled me to learn that the quality control process for vitamins is left to the manufacturer to design, and they also get to be the inspector of the quality of final product.

Last year three out of every four adult Americans, and about one-third of all American children took vitamins.[1] [2] There is no requirement that an outside organization review a vitamin pill for quality or audit them for safety before sale.  Someone should.

One recent study found 44% of inspected vitamins and food supplements did not contain what the product label said.[3]

Another study, done by a group of doctors who try to prevent and treat liver disease, found that of the 272 diet supplements they tested, more than half had ingredients that were not listed on the label – including some that were harmful.[4]

CVS Pharmacy, which has paid attention to this issue for some time, recently reviewed its offerings and found that even in their inventory 7% did not meet the claims on the label.[5] They stopped selling those.

There are some organizations that buy ‘secret shopper’ samples from stores, and run examinations on them.  They publish the results on the web.  One such organization is ConsumerLab  Another is a quality assurance program, which manufacturers pay to join, called USP Dietary Supplement Verification Program, which checks the vitamin to make sure it contains what is says on the label.  They run laboratory tests on products the manufacturer voluntarily sends them, and if they pass, the manufacturer can put a seal of approval on the bottle.[6] Less than one percent of the vitamin products on the market bear that seal. [7]

I sometimes hoist one of the grand-kids on my shoulders and taking them out to pick tomatoes or look at critters living under a rock in the yard.   It is surprising what we find when we turn over that rock. My two-year-old granddaughter and I were looking at bugs through a magnifying glass recently, and we saw things that shocked us both.

I just turned over a rock about unsafe things my grandkids eat that I thought were supposed to be healthy.

How do we build a society that protects our kids?  It is actually a complicated question, because it raised questions about the role of parents, food producers, manufactures of products that kids eat, the role of government when the companies are not doing their job, and increasingly, politics.

Expand government regulation enforcement?  The right-wing will not like that.   Step back and let the ‘free market’ do what it wants?  The left-wing would point to what we find when we turn over the rock.

I am glad that my grandkids are too young to ask me what to do because I would have to admit to my confusion.   What I do know is that this decision should be made with the best interest of the kids.  After the Zoom birthday party, can we gather outside wearing masks and chat about this?  How should our society behave to protect the vulnerable?


Authored by Francis Koster Ed. D.


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Francis P. Koster Ed.D.

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