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Francis Koster: What to do when health foods are unhealthy?

By Francis Koster

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 online that would make him (and his parents) happy and be small enough that 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 on line 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. They also get to be the inspector of the quality of final product.  

I was surprised to learn that there is no requirement that an outside organization review a vitamin pill for quality or safety before sale.

About one-third of all American children take vitamins. The Council for Responsible Nutrition, an industry trade group, reported last year that 77% of all adult Americans also take them. 

One recent study found 44% of  vitamins and food supplements inspected by independent third parties did not contain what the product label said. CVS Pharmacy, which has paid attention to this issue for some time, recently reviewed its offerings and found that, even in their tightly controlled inventory, 7% did not meet the claims on the label. They stopped selling those.

Another study was done by a group of doctors who try to prevent and treat liver disease. They 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.

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, at consumerlab.com. Another is a quality assurance program, which manufacturers pay to join, called USP Dietary Supplement Verification Program. They run laboratory tests on products the manufacturer voluntarily sends them. If they pass, the manufacturer can put a seal of approval on the bottle. Fewer than 1% of the vitamin products on the market bear that seal.

So here sits grandpa, wanting to protect my loved ones, with a head full of questions. What should I do with this information?  

I sometimes hoist one of the grandkids on my shoulders and taking them out to pick tomatoes or bring a magnifying glass and look at critters living under a rock in the yard. It is surprising what we find when we turn over that rock. My 2-year-old granddaughter and I were looking at those bugs 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? In this case it is actually a complicated question, because it raised questions about the role of parents, food producers, manufacturers 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 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?

Koster, who lives in Kannapolis, did his graduate work with a focus on threats to the basic life-support systems of air, water, food and fuel. He spent a majority of his career as chief innovation officer in one of the nation’s largest pediatric health care systems.

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