My experience at the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS)
Dietary Supplement Research Practicum 2009

By Ruthy Watson, Ph.D., MSPH
Adjunct Professor, Kaplan University School of Health Sciences

Dietary supplements are the one of the largest and fastest growing segments of the retail industry in America and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is doing it’s part to educate and encourage research in this area. One of the ways they do this is by sponsoring the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) annual Dietary Supplement Research Practicum. The practicum has been conducted for three years and is open to participants from around the world. I was fortunate enough to be one of the 82 participants that were selected to participate this year in the weeklong course, which was held June 1-5 at the NIH campus in Bethesda Maryland. Other college and university professors, pharmacists, medical doctors, nutritionists and professional researchers joined me, and graduate students from countries including Japan, Brazil and the United Kingdom in daily sessions of learning and networking. Each day featured morning and afternoon sessions that included presentations, panel discussions and opportunities for questions and answers.

The week began with an introduction to the world of dietary supplements and the government agencies that are responsible for the research and regulation of dietary supplements and drugs. Those agencies are the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). We learned about who takes supplements, why they take supplements and how supplement intake is measured by the ODS and FDA.  Some of the highlights of the day included speakers and a discussion on one of the critical pieces of legislation: The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) which is the reason for those familiar phrases that we see on many of the supplements one of which is “this drug is not intended to prevent, treat, or cure any disease”.  The DSHEA legislation was a topic of much discussion throughout the week because of it’s impact on how dietary supplements are regulated or, according to some, not regulated. The key thing to know about DSHEA is that it distinguishes between what is a drug and what is a supplement.

Another highlight of the day was the presentation by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that provided us with insight on the role the organization plays in the marketing and advertising of foods, drugs, and supplements to consumers. The FTC is a partner with the FDA and is able to enforce the aspects of DSHEA that relate to the language used on foods, drugs and supplements. For example, there are certain claims that distinguish a food or supplement from a drug and it is all about the words being used.  Words like prevent, treat or cure are primarily reserved for drugs when referring to the impact of the drug in the body. On the other hand, words like reduce and lower are used for supplements in making what are called “structure/function” claims, meaning that they improve or impact the structure or function of the body. The FTC was instrumental in bringing a suit against General Mills in the marketing of Cheerios when it made the claim of lowering cholesterol, which according to the FTC, is a claim of treating a disease (Schultz, 2009). Such claims are reserved for drugs and Cheerios is a food and not able to make such a claim. General Mills has since changed it’s verbage in it’s Cheerios marketing and advertising.

The focus of the morning sessions on the second day was on the extensive procedures that were involved in taking foods, drugs, and supplements from the stage of conception, to development and finally to market. This was an especially good day because we were treated to some yummy chocolate treats by Dr. Debra Miller who is the Director of Nutrition from the Hershey Company, following her presentation. Each of the presentations were enlightening and thought provoking. Many of my colleagues as well as myself were amazed at the information we received that we didn’t know such as how extensive and expensive the process is for bringing a drug to market, however, it is just the opposite for bringing a supplement to market. During the afternoon sessions the speakers and panel discussions focused on the efficacy, interaction, safety, monitoring, and the evaluation of supplements and drugs and the challenges that are involved in these elements.

Day three was a day that we spent off the NIH campus and in the nations capital. The title for the day was “Meeting the Stakeholders”. Senator Orin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Dr. Donna Porter of the Congressional Research Service addressed the group regarding DSHEA and other current topics of the day (healthcare reform). In addition we met with representatives from the dietary supplement industry to gain insight on what is being done to maintain integrity and quality control of dietary supplements. The last meeting of the day involved a panel discussion with representatives from consumer organizations who candidly and openly talked with us about issues of concern when it comes to supplements. In my opinion, this was probably the most interesting discussion of the day because these representatives were not concerned about any negative impacts or losing funding since they were working in the best interest of the citizens and consumers. They gave us information on some of their legislative efforts and ongoing research relating to consumer safety in dietary regulations and composition. For example, Dr. Peter Lurie from the Public Citizen’s Health Research Group gave us handouts and information about the website relating to details that were uncovered regarding weight loss supplements that were laced with prescription drugs (http://www.worstpills.org/includes/page.cfm?op_id=461), to which many consumers were unknowingly exposed.

The last two days emphasized research and opportunities with the NIH and ODS on dietary supplements. There are many considerations that go into the research but one point that was emphasized was the importance of finding unique and creative ways to conduct research that are appropriate and efficient. I came home with an extremely large 3-ring binder of all the events and presentations of the week. In addition we received an official certificate of completion from the ODS and NIH heralding our achievement during the week and a press release that can we can use. This was a phenomenal week for me as I got the chance to socialize and learn with my colleagues in the area of health sciences. Throughout the week, I was able to update my students on my experiences and encourage them to investigate the numerous possibilities for research and careers with the NIH and FDA on dietary supplements as they seek to make a difference. I know that this is one way that I was able to enhance the learning experience of my students at Kaplan and in essence, enhance my impact as a professor.


Ruthy Watson, PhD, MSPH

Ruthy Watson is an adjunct professor with Kaplan University’s School of Health Sciences. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Chatham University and both her Master of Science in Public Health, and her Doctorate in Public Health and Community Health Promotion from Walden University. In addition, Dr. Watson is president and founder of Ruthy Watson’s Innovative Wellness Consulting, Inc., a health and wellness promotion organization that specializes in community programs and activities to encourage healthy living and disease prevention in South Florida. Dr. Watson has taught in traditional classroom settings and online courses in wellness education with Broward College in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

Kaplan Higher Education Corporation is a division of Kaplan, Inc., a subsidiary of The Washington Post Company.

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