The U.S. Office of Dietary Supplements brings science to the consumer
An interview with Dr. Bernadette Marriott, director of the Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health
In 1994, Congress passed a law that ensured the continued right of Americans to buy dietary supplements. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) mandated the formation of the Office of Dietary Supplements, part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
Office director Bernadette Marriott, Ph.D., is in charge of carrying out the government’s mission to promote research on dietary supplements. Under the stipulations of DSHEA, her office must explore the role of dietary supplements in improving health care; promote scientific study of the health benefits of dietary supplements; and conduct and coordinate scientific research that relates to dietary supplements.
Marriott formerly served as associate director of the Food and Nutrition Board at the National Academy of Sciences. She has a doctorate in psychology from King’s College, University of Aberdeen, Scotland, with additional training in nutrition at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beltsville Human Nutrition Center.
Herbs For Health: How have you refined the role of the Office of Dietary Supplements in the past year?
Bernadette Marriott: Our focus is clearly on identifying gaps in the research on dietary supplements and advising the FDA and other agencies where more research is needed. The science of dietary supplements is where the science of basic nutrition was at the beginning of this century. We have all this teasing information, but nothing really definitive. This is normal for a new science, however.
HH: What information are we lacking?
BM: We need to know more about three specific areas: How dietary supplements are made; the safety of dosage levels; and the length of time one should take supplements.
The issue of dietary supplement production concerns standardizing formula preparation. We need to know, for example, whether a dietary supplement can be contaminated by bacteria or other ingredients that might be included in its formula. Consider an herbal preparation from a plant where the leaf is the active ingredient. What happens if part of the stem is mixed in as well? What is the safety of that mix? How do those two parts interact?
Secondly, there is a great deal of information available about dosage levels used by different types of people, but we don’t know anything about those dosages’ effect on other groups—there are populations that haven’t been studied. Often with dietary supplements we see exciting results on small segments of people—studies on young male triathletes, for example, and the effect of supplements on their athletic performance. But how does such a study translate, for example, to middle-aged women who play tennis once a month?
And we need more information about how long one should consume dietary supplements under different conditions to be effective.
HH: Which dietary supplement do you think research has shown to have the most exciting potential health benefits?
BM: The important recent breakthrough on folic acid and its relation to the prevention of neural tube defects is the most exciting new area. Some foods will be fortified with folic acid now. At first, it was thought that the folic acid studies were only pertinent to a small segment of the population—those people suffering from folic deficiency and neural tube defects. But the research not only identified the fact that a specific supplement can reduce the risk of a disease, it also opened a whole new area of study. We found that folic acid also can play an important role in the reduction of heart disease. The opening of just one door like this can lead to new avenues of applications of research on dietary supplements.
HH: What other dietary supplements are of interest to your office?
BM: Botanicals are a high priority, but I’m not at liberty yet to say which ones specifically. An informal panel of fifteen people from academia, government, industry, and the public advises us on which dietary supplements we should focus on. They have not yet published their comments to us.
HH: Could you tell us about some projects that your office is working on now?
BM: We are creating two databases on the science behind dietary supplements that will be available to the public on the Internet with a friendly search engine under the NIH web site. The first database is an international bibliography on all published papers relating to dietary supplements. The second database will catalog all the federally funded research on dietary supplements, beginning with all projects funded by NIH. Next, we’ll collect and publish peer reviews on all the research.
HH: In 1996, your office funded six research grants to explore the potential of dietary supplements in disease prevention. Will you continue this work?
BM: Yes, we’ve committed about 30 percent of our annual budget [of $300,000] to funding research grants. The six grants we funded last year represented cutting-edge research that will address some of the many unanswered questions about dietary supplements. We want to do more partnerships with industry to fund research as well. And, we are very interested in funding more grants for research on botanicals.