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Beware of Online Food, Supplements

October 16, 2000|Phil Lempert

Shopping for healthy foods and nutritional supplements on the Internet is easy enough. But is it a safe and wise thing to do?

I've often pondered that question as I sorted through the dozens of unsolicited e-mails I receive each week from online health companies promising better health and nutrition. Most of these e-mails come from companies I've never heard of.

These electronic missives aren't likely to cease any time soon. Online grocery sales are estimated to reach $10.8 billion by 2003, with health foods and nutritional supplements accounting for about a third of that total, according to Forrester Research, a market research firm.

Whether such forecasts prove accurate or not, it seems clear that shopping for health-related food and supplements will become a part of everyday life during the next few years. While technology rushes forward, however, government regulation and consumer protections move at a snail's pace.

Foods sold on the Internet are subject to regulation by the Food and Drug Administration to ensure that they don't violate interstate commerce laws, but the agency does not have the staff or resources to proactively monitor the many thousands of sites on which foods and supplements are sold. The FDA will handle complaints on a case-by-case basis, an agency spokeswoman says.

When it comes to regulating the health and medical claims made by companies operating on the Internet, the FDA and FTC both have a role to play. Certain statements, such as saying a product "lowers cholesterol," are considered labeling and fall under FDA regulation. Meanwhile, a claim such as "increases your energy and cardiac output" might be considered an advertising claim, an area overseen by the FTC.

A company can literally put anything on its Web site to promote a product without much fear of being caught. And ever-gullible consumers will continue to buy products that do nothing to enhance their health--or that may even prove harmful to their health.

Remember the diet craze created by the drug fen-phen? A Mayo Clinic study linked it to potentially fatal heart valve damage, which forced the drug's removal from the market in 1997. American Home Products agreed earlier this year to pay up to $3.75 billion in a proposed settlement to an estimated 6 million people who took the drug. Even so, some Web sites still brazenly promote and sell various herbal formulations that they call fen-phen.

So how do you navigate through the Internet and find healthful food products and good value? Here are some tips:

* Be sure the company selling the product is clearly identified, including an address and phone number. Look for information that tells you how long the company has been in business?

* Are sources, such as medical journal articles, cited to substantiate health claims? Or does the site rely on testimonials from nonprofessionals or people identified only by their initials?

* Check to see whether the Web site provides nutritional information and ingredient statements. Such information should also be on the package of whatever you purchase.

* Make sure all orders and payments are processed on a "secure server." Most sites will provide this information as you process your order online. Also, read the site's privacy statement carefully. Don't provide personal data such as your Social Security number or confidential medical information.

* Calculate the total price, including shipping and handling charges (most reputable sites will do this for you before the order is final). Some sites may claim that you are saving money, but compared with what? If the price comparison is not listed on the Web site, don't believe it.

Many traditional health food and nutritional product retailers have expanded to the Web. These sites usually offer the best name-brand products and better pro-consumer policies if you are not satisfied with the product or service.

The new frontier of the Internet has been likened to the days of the Wild West, when the rules were often unwritten and it was anything goes. Remember, this is your health, so do your homework before going online to buy a food or nutritional product. Don't be misled by flashy Web designs or phony claims--and ask lots of questions.


Phil Lempert hosts a national syndicated radio show and is the food correspondent for NBC's "Today" show. He can be reached at His column appears the first and third Mondays of the month.

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