(ABC) -- It’s a $20-billion industry, but dozens of weight loss and immune system supplements have illegal labels and lack scientific evidence to back up their health claims. That’s according to a government report released on Wednesday.
"It is really an unregulated wild west. People are taking these for all kinds of conditions and there is no evidence that they work," said ABC News’ Chief Health and Medical Editor Doctor Richard Besser.
The report, released by the Department of Health and Human Services, found that 20 percent of the 127 weight loss and immune-boosting supplements investigators purchased online and in retail stores across the country carried labels that made illegal and unsubstantiated claims to cure or treat disease.
Some products even claimed to cure or prevent diabetes or cancer, or that they could help people with HIV or AIDS, something that’s strictly prohibited under Federal law.
“Taking a supplement instead of a drug that is proven to work can have big time consequences for their health,” Dr. Besser said.
The department's inspector general ruled: "Supplements that make disease claims could mislead consumers into using them as replacements for prescription drugs or other treatments for medical conditions, with potentially dangerous results."
"This isn't very shocking to us," said Dietician Laura Jeffers, Cleveland Clinic.
For a drug to be marketed, it has to prove its claim. However, all vitamin and supplement companies have to do is say that it’s safe.
"It's really important that consumers do a lot of research but then are upfront with their physicians on everything that they're taking," Jeffers said.
The FDA says the agency will consider and address the report's recommendations as its “resources and priorities allow.”