Baby Boomers and Nutritional Supplements

Informed, prosperous, and health-conscious, the baby boomers are known as a generation that plans to fight vigorously against the encroachments of age. During the 1990s, as the boomers began reaching their fifties, they increasingly turned to supplements to ward off osteoporosis, memory loss, and a host of other ailments. With increased demand, the vitamins, minerals, and herbs they sought migrated from health food stores to mass merchandisers. Between 1997 and 2002 the supplement industry experienced a 34 percent jump in sales, to more than $19 billion annually.

—Paula Kepos food additive: substance added to foods to improve nutrition, taste, appearance or shelf-life drugs: substances whose administration causes a significant change in the body's function efficacy: effectiveness calcium: mineral essential for bones and teeth osteoporosis: weakening of the bone structure scurvy: a syndrome characterized by weakness, anemia, and spongy gums, due to vitamin C deficiency antioxidant: substance that prevents oxidation, a damaging reaction with oxygen

Because they are not regulated as strictly as drugs, dietary supplements can cause unpredictable side effects. For example, studies have shown an increased risk of prostate cancer among men who take beta-carotene supplements and drink alcohol, and an increased risk of lung cancer among people who take beta-carotene supplements and smoke. [Photograph by Robert J. Huffman. Field Mark Publications. Reproduced by permission.]

In Germany, herbs and herbal products are regulated in a different way than in the United States. In 1978, the German Federal Health Agency established the German Commission E to investigate the safety and efficacy of herbal remedies commonly used in Germany. The commission weighed evidence from the literature, from anecdotal reports, and from clinical studies. They subsequently developed monographs on over 400 herbs. These monographs are now used worldwide as essential references on herbal therapy. The commission also established indications (how an herb is used medicinally) and dosage recommendations, resulting in the successful mainstreaming of herbs into medical practice. German physicians frequently prescribe the herbs ginkgo biloba, hawthorn, St. John's wort, horse chestnut, and saw palmetto. Unlike U.S. law, German law allows herb manufacturers to market herbs with drug claims if the herb is proven safe and effective.

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