In The News: Are Melatonin Brownies Really Dietary Supplements?

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Your daily dietary supplement may not actually be a dietary supplement at all.

This recent concern comes from the sale of pre-packaged brownies that contain doses of melatonin. The products (with names such as Lazy Cakes and Kush Cakes) are being marketed as dietary supplements that promote relaxation, alleviate stress and help combat insomnia. While they do have these desired effects, the brownies may be more dangerous than they appear.    

Brownies with melatonin are marketed to help people sleep.
Photo by yum9me/Courtesy

According to a statement released by the Natural Products Association, a product labeled as a dietary supplement may not actually mean that it is one. In order to qualify as a dietary supplement under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), a product:

• Must be inteded to supplement the diet
• Must be labeled as a dietary supplement
• Contains one of more dietary ingredients such as vitamins, minerals, amino acids, metabolites, concentrates, herbs and other botanicals
• Is intended to be taken by mouth and comes in forms such as capsules, powder, softgels, gelcaps, tablets or liquids
• Cannot be represented as a conventional food item

Under DSHEA, companies do not need the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval to market their product as a dietary supplement. DSHEA leaves it up to the individual company to make sure its product is safe and that any claims it makes can be substantiated with evidence. U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) has raised concerns with the FDA about the amount of melatonin in the brownies. Although there is no recommended dose of melatonin, the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database shows a typical dose is between 0.3 and 5 mg. However, the brownies contain about 8 mg of melatonin apiece–way more than the normal amount.

Consumers should be aware that the serving size is only half a brownie. (But does anyone really eat just half?) The National Poison Center data shows that melatonin causes more calls than any other herb or supplement with at least 5,000 calls in 2009 alone, according to an NPR article. The brownies are not intended for children, and at least two children have been hospitalized after eating them. Large quantities of melatonin can slow down the central nervous system and cause breathing difficulties. However, the more common effect is drowsiness and sometimes nausea.

Melatonin can be dangerous if it’s overconsumed.
Photo by Newbirth35/Courtesy

Dietary supplements cannot replace a healthy, balanced diet. Still, at least 50 percent of Americans use some sort of dietary supplement to promote their health, according to an article from ABC News. While consumers should check with their doctors before taking any dietary supplements, the NPA would like products marketed as dietary supplement to be more heavily regulated. Improved regulation by the FDA would help consumers make better choices to support a healthier lifestyle.

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