Are Seaweed Supplements Worthy of the Hype?

Most reported claims and benefits of seaweed supplements are not backed by sufficient scientific evidence that suggests it is the magical elixir to immortality. However, there appear to be some scientific benefits of seaweed backed by early research. Additional research is still needed to determine the best seaweed species, properties, testing methods, and medicinal uses. Furthermore, ensuring adequate quality control and product safety is critical. However, this is easier said than done.

Key takeaways:
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    Supplements are not well regulated for safety, effectiveness, or quality control in the U.S.
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    Use caution when taking supplements and consult a healthcare professional.
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    Seaweed may benefit the immune system, help build muscle, and improve strength development. However, additional research is warranted.

What is seaweed?

Seaweed refers to a form of macro-algae (algae evident to the naked eye). Over 12,000 species of seaweed have been distinguished and come in a wide array of colors — blue, green, blue-green, brown, and red. However, seaweeds differ in much more than their colors. Structure differences, evolutionary history, and various traits that may contribute to health benefits vary across seaweed species.

As a food ingredient, seaweed is known for its iodine content and low calories. Additionally, seaweed can be nutrient-rich, providing assorted B vitamins, vitamin C, and many other nutrients. Finally, seaweed offers an excellent protein source.

Benefits of seaweed supplementation

The literature is promising about the effectiveness of seaweed consumption. Furthermore, data indicate that seaweed may have several benefits and no significant downsides. However, even if the evidence points to a potential health advantage, we lack enough evidence to confirm that taking supplements made of seaweed may treat or ward off various diseases. That being said, the studies do provide promise and suggest that possible benefits of taking seaweed supplements may include:

  • Improved immune function.
  • Improved weight management.
  • Better diabetes management or assist in preventing disease onset.
  • Help with muscle growth and strength development.
  • Serve as an iodine source.
  • Aid in the prevention of breast cancer.
  • Provide a healthy source of fiber.
  • Reduce the risk of heart-related diseases.

However, more research is needed across all topics to say, "Yes", there are proven health benefits. Additionally, you would have to individually evaluate each available supplement on the market. Is it the same extract used in the clinical study? Is it tested for purity? Are suitable manufacturing protocols used in production? What quality controls are used? Can you trust a supplement without U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversight or pre-evaluation before marketing?

Supplements vs medications

Taking a supplement is just as safe as any medication, right? There are stringent requirements in the U.S. before approval to be classified as a medication, including over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription drugs. The FDA assesses a drug at all stages, from production to clinical trials. This includes how well and how the studies are designed and whether they demonstrate effectiveness with minimal risk. This oversight even includes how a medication or product is manufactured and packaged.

Additionally, medications must:

  • Receive FDA reviews.
  • Have labels with reliable ingredients. All ingredients must be listed, and FDA performs quality control analysis to ensure the ingredients are what they say they are.
  • Be proven safe before being certified for sale — backed by safety and efficacy studies.

Supplements have none of these safeguards. Supplements are neither tested nor evaluated by the FDA. Manufacturers may seek 3rd-party testing to evaluate supplements for quality control. However, though some supplement producers may opt for independent testing — to boost marketing effectiveness — this step is optional. Often, supplements may have none of the claimed ingredients within the product. Finally, producers do not need to prove they are safe before selling. The FDA will evaluate a product only if and when consumers report concerns suggesting adverse effects and harm.

Attempting to regulate supplements

Supplements fall under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA). As a result, the FDA must prove that the supplement causes harm (after it is marketed) rather than ensuring manufacturers create and sell safe products. This act separates dietary supplements from vitamins and minerals and lays down labeling requirements and other matters.

Sadly, only a few additional amendments have been made to the 1994 law since its enactment. Updates include a 1998 amendment that prevents dietary supplement labels from claiming to be disease cures or inhibitors. For example, supplements cannot claim to prevent a disease, treat a specific condition, or reduce lab-tested values such as cholesterol or blood sugar. However, a supplement label can state that it provides ‘immune system support’ or other similar statements.

Adulterated vs Misbranded

While the FDA still regulates dietary supplements differently than medications, they have limited oversight and authority. They can take action for products that are misbranded or adulterated. The negative here is that these actions can only be taken after the products have already been consumed and in the face of reported adverse effects.

An adulterated supplement means ingredients contained within the product may not be proven safe, provide no evidence supporting claims, fail to meet the dietary ingredient definition, or could be medications used in other countries but not legal in the US.

Conversely, misbranded refers to violations of how a product is labeled and marketed.

Reporting supplement side effects

Suppose you take a supplement, or drug, use a medical device or OTC drug, and feel that you have suffered ill effects. In that case, you can always report them to your physician, a drug company or manufacturer, or directly to the FDA via the Safety Reporting Portal (SRP). The SRP facilitates the reporting of safety concerns to the FDA.

Should I take supplements?

Choosing to take supplements can be daunting. Knowing how to navigate the literature and not rely on product reviews, word of mouth, and Google snippets to guide your health decisions may make the difference between a healthy and potentially dangerous choice.

Never use supplements without giving them careful consideration. Regardless of what the marketing claims to promote, support, cure, or treat, consult a medical professional. Always do your research, and recognize that not all supplements are created equal. Furthermore, not all supplements will improve your health and well-being. Due to drug interactions, some could even harm you, especially if combined with prescription or OTC medications.

Are seaweed supplements any safer?

The National Institute of Health (NIH) doesn’t list seaweed as a recognized supplement on their Dietary Supplements Fact Sheets. This demonstrates that insufficient research exists to support recommendations of use.

Never base your decision to take a supplement solely on product reviews. Instead, make scientific, evidence-based decisions and, ideally, choose products with third-party testing for quality control and to ensure product ingredients are accurate. Companies must prove safe and effective drugs, food additives, biologics (e.g., antibodies, vaccines, interleukins), and medical devices. However, they have no such requirement for supplements.

Remember, the FDA only assesses supplements after marketing and only in the face of adverse events. You never know what you are going to get. All things being said, however, seaweed may have some positive benefits. More research is needed to determine the appropriate doses, use, and therapies for which it may be beneficial.

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