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How to tell real medicine from mere food supplements?

Come Christmas, many of us show their concern for their nearest and dearest by buying them products promising truly miraculous improvements of one's health. But how to tell true medicine from mere dietary supplements which, bold promises aside, rarely deliver any benefits that could not be derived from a humble cough drop?

The difference between food supplements and medicinal products could hardly be greater. The former are ultimately just - food; food which contains increased levels of vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial nutrients. Food supplements need not have any actual effects at all: while they are subject to approval by the Czech ministry of health, their review is limited to the aspect of "health safety" - i.e., harmlessness. In other words, food supplements won't harm us, but no one examines whether they actively benefit us. By contrast, medicinal products are subject to a stringent registration procedure before the State Institute for Drug Control (SÚKL) or the European Medicines Agency, which is itself preceded by mandatory clinical assessments. This means that medicinal products are guaranteed to be not merely safe but also have an actual therapeutic effect. In addition, for as long as they are available in the market, medicinal products are carefully monitored by the SÚKL, an authority which ensures the safety of medicinal products and the best possible risk-benefit ratio.

The most basic duty for those selling food supplements is to label the package as such: "food supplement". However, a clever graphic designer will find ways of making that label so inconspicuous as to be easily overseen in the heat of shopping. Also, the label "food supplement" must not list, or make reference to, supposed qualities of the product in terms of its ability to prevent, treat, or heal human diseases. Further, the product packaging must not claim that a well-balanced and varied diet cannot ensure the sufficient intake of vitamins and minerals. Language being the flexible tool that it is, though, especially in the able hands of marketing professionals, producers of food supplements have so far remained able to put the most ambitious claims and the most outlandish promises on their products with impunity.

In the case of true medicinal products, both the packaging and the leaflet must state, among other things, the registration number. Of course, this is of little help to a layperson who wishes to clearly identify a given drug. Be that as it may: registered medicinal products can be searched in the SÚKL database at http://www.sukl.cz/modules/medication/search.php; products not listed in that database are not registered medicinal products. If you are unsure whether you are about to purchase "true medicine" or a mere dietary supplement, you may want to look up the name of the product in the above database – if it turns up in your search, you can be sure to buy a real medicinal product.

Source: Act No. 378/2007 Coll., on Drugs; http://www.sukl.cz/leciva/rozliseni-doplnku-stravy-od-lecivych-pripravku ; Decree No. 352/2009 Coll., on the requirements for dietary supplements and the enrichment of foodstuff