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Food supplements pose health risk

By Flavia Nassaka

You might be getting more of these than you think, and more might not be good

The round glass disc, upon first glance, looks like nothing special. In fact, information on the product’s website indicates that a bio disc is only 9 centimeters in diameter and only 10 mm thick. But, according to Shamim Nalugemwa, within this despised piece of glass lies a secret to life.

Nalugemwa says when water or any other liquid energised by the disc is drunk, it can make one regain lost energy, cure joint pains, cancer, menstrual cramps, diabetes, eye disorders, cough, hypertension, ulcers and many other ailments. Should you believe her? Well, she is a sales person.


You might have bumped into her type. They are dealers in herbal food supplements in most urban centres in Uganda. Most sell through network marketing.

Dr. Hanifah  Namusoke, a Nutritionist at Mulago hospital, mentions some of the top names and warns against them.

“In the western world; for instance in the US,” she says, “they market their products as food supplements, in Uganda the same products are marketed as drugs that can cure all sorts of ailments,” she says.

Food supplement products are classified as immune boosters, detoxifiers, reflexes and nourishments intended to complement food dietary. They are not ailment soothers.

One dealer said that they are marketed as drugs because Ugandans would rather take drugs to get well rather than taking something just to complement their diets. To some marketers this is a strategy to not only sell more products but to also grow their networks.

“When you recruit a consumer, you are rewarded with a commission and when those consumers recruit someone else, you get an additional commission in the process. So, many people buy the products not only for health reasons but also financial gains” he explains.

“There have been no clinical trials conducted to support the efficacy of some supplements,” said Julius Babiiha, a Drug Information Technician at National Drug Authority (NDA). He says the disc Nalugemwa sells was taken to NDA for approval and it was rejected.  Like the disc, many other nutritional supplements are on the market without approval. People are already using them as full time drugs because of the satisfying stories they have heard from friends or the marketers.  Irene Kijumba, a hypertensive 40—year old, was convinced to buy the disc by a workmate who was already using the product but also stood to earn from the sale.

When asked why she went for the disc at the outrageous price of Shs1 million – far more expensive than her hypertension drugs, Kijumba’s only response was a question: “Who could argue about that price tag considering the pharmacological effects that the marketers claim the disc can have?”

According to Dr Namusoke, dietary supplements include vitamins, minerals, herbals and botanicals, amino acids, enzymes, and many other products that come in a variety of forms- traditional tablets, capsules, and powders, as well as drinks and energy bars. Popular supplements include vitamins D and E; minerals like calcium and iron; herbs such as echinacea and garlic; and specialty products like glucosamine, probiotics, and fish oils.  Scientific evidence shows that some dietary supplements are beneficial for overall health and for managing some health conditions. For example, calcium and vitamin D are important for keeping bones strong and reducing bone loss; folic acid decreases the risk of certain birth defects; and omega-3 fatty acids from fish oils might help some people with heart disease.

The risk

The NDA is currently not fully regulating the segment of food supplements and some are not approved. Therefore, using them could be risky because it’s not independently tackled in the National Drug Policy. Instead they are treated as any other healthcare product; the reason some people find it easy to trade in them without trouble.

Doctor says that some ingredients found in dietary supplements are added to a growing number of foods, including breakfast cereals and beverages. As a result, you may be getting more of these ingredients than you think, and more might not be good. Taking more than you need is always more expensive and can also raise your risk of experiencing side effects. For example, getting too much vitamin A can cause headaches and liver damage, reduce bone strength, and cause birth defects. Excess iron causes nausea and vomiting and may damage the liver and other organs.

In addition, there are some dietary supplements that are harmful and should be avoided at all times. Although a dietary supplement must be proven to be unsafe before it can be removed from these shops and pharmacies, it is important to make sure your doctor knows about any supplements you are taking especially for diabetic or hypertensive patients, Babiiha advises.

The most common action with supplements that leads to problems is when an individual takes herbal supplements combined with either a prescription drug or over the counter medication. Combining these in any manner can cause serious side effects, including paralysis, coma, or even death.

“Even if a herbal supplement is all natural, it doesn’t mean that it is always safe to take. Speak to a medical professional first to ensure there are no dangers, but as a general rule of thumb, do not combine herbal supplements with other medications,” she explains.

NDA explains that there is a limitation on the amount of nutrient these supplements can contain, beyond which they become drugs.

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