By Nicoletta Lanese
March 10, 2020
While vitamin C supplements pose little risk to consumers, other so-called “immune-boosting” products could be harmful.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak began in the United States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have already issued warning letters to seven companies for selling fraudulent products that promise to cure, treat or prevent the viral infection. “These warning letters are just the first step,” FTC Chairman Joe Simons said in a news release. “We’re prepared to take enforcement actions against companies that continue to market this type of scam.”
Note that no evidence suggests that other so-called immune-boosting supplements — such as zinc, green tea or echinacea — help to prevent SARS-CoV-2 infections, Dr. Mark Mulligan, division director of the infectious diseases and vaccine center at NYU Langone Medical Center, told New York Times Parenting. “I do not recommend spending money on supplements for this purpose,” Mulligan said.
“The medical profession still doesn’t know exactly how to influence the immune system, despite what supplement products may claim,” Julie Stefanski, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, told The Washington Post.
The FDA does not vet dietary supplements as it does pharmaceutical medications; that means that supplement manufacturers can place new products on the market without first proving that the substances are either safe or effective. The FDA and FTC step in after the fact to police a product that presents “a significant or unreasonable risk of illness or injury or that is otherwise adulterated or misbranded.”
These agencies rely heavily on reports from consumers, health care professionals and supplement manufacturers themselves to identify sketchy products and pull them off the market. That said, the FDA encourages consumers to stay informed and “be wary of hype and headlines,” saying that unsubstantiated claims crop up on supplement labels all the time and it’s often up to you to spot them.
When in doubt, the FDA recommends that you “let your health care professional advise you on sorting reliable information from questionable information.” Thankfully, in the case of vitamin C, supplements don’t typically cause harmful side effects, unless consumed in excess.