What is a dietary supplement?
A dietary supplement is a product intended for ingestion that contains a “dietary ingredient” intended to add further nutritional value to (supplement) the diet. A “dietary ingredient” may be one, or any combination, of the following substances:
- a vitamin
- a mineral
- an herb or other botanical
- an amino acid
- a dietary substance for use by people to supplement the diet by increasing the total dietary intake
- a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, or extract
Dietary supplements are available in different forms, viz., tablets, capsules, softgels, gelcaps, liquids or powders. Some of the dietary supplements will help ensure that adequate dietary intake of essential nutrients can be made available; others may help in reducing the risk of disease.
The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act defines dietary supplements as a category of food. However, there is one exception: if a dietary supplement meets the definition of a drug, it is regulated as a drug.
The difference between a dietary supplement and a conventional food
Conventional foods do not count as dietary supplements. A dietary supplement is a product that contains one or more “dietary ingredients” and is taken by mouth that is intended to supplement the diet. The “dietary ingredients” in these products may include:
- herbs or other botanicals
- amino acids
- other substances found in the human diet, such as enzymes
Dietary supplements must not be represented for use as a conventional food item but must be labeled as such, or, as the sole item of a meal or the diet. One way to distinguish dietary supplements from conventional foods is by looking at the nutrition information on the label of the product. Conventional foods must have a “Nutrition Facts” panel on their labels, but dietary supplements must have a “Supplement Facts” panel.
All products labeled as a dietary supplement carry a Supplement Facts panel that lists the contents, amount of active ingredients per serving, and other added ingredients (like fillers, binders, and flavorings). The manufacturer suggests the serving size, but you or your health care provider might decide that a different amount is more appropriate for you.
When people take supplements instead of prescribes medicines they are most likely to cause side effects or harm, or, many supplements are taken in combination by the people. Some supplements can affect person’s response to anesthesia if they are taken before or after surgery, and they could also increase the risk of bleeding. Here are just a few examples:
- Vitamin K can reduce the ability of the blood thinner Coumadin® to prevent blood from clotting.
- John’s wort can speed the breakdown of many drugs (including antidepressants and birth control pills) and thereby reduce these drugs’ effectiveness.
- Antioxidant supplements, like vitamins C and E, might reduce the effectiveness of some types of cancer chemotherapy.
Keep in mind that some ingredients found in dietary supplements are added to a growing number of foods, including breakfast cereals and beverages. As a result, you may be getting more of these ingredients than you think, and more might not be better. Taking more than you need is always more expensive and can also raise your risk of experiencing side effects. For example, getting too much vitamin A can cause headaches and liver damage, reduce bone strength, and cause birth defects. Excess iron causes nausea and vomiting and may damage the liver and other organs.
Be cautious about taking dietary supplements if you are pregnant or nursing. Also, be careful about giving them (beyond a basic multivitamin/mineral product) to a child. There should be more data available on most dietary supplements testing for safety in pregnant women, nursing mothers, or children.
How are dietary supplements regulated?
The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, approved by US Congress in 1994, defines dietary supplements as products that:
- Are intended to supplement the diet
- Contain one or more ingredients (like vitamins, herbs, amino acids or their constituents)
- Are intended to be taken bymouth
- Are labeled as dietary supplements
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) once regulated dietary supplements the same way it does foods, but that changed as of Aug. 24, 2007. The FDA’s new good manufacturing practices ruling ensures that supplements:
- Are produced in a quality manner
- Do not contain contaminants or impurities
- Are accurately labeled
Who needs dietary supplements
It’s important to remember that dietary supplements are designed to supplement your diet, not to replace nutritious foods.
According to David Grotto, a spokesperson for American Dietetic Association (ADA), “Supplements can enhance a diet where there are shortfalls, but a handful of vitamin, mineral or other dietary supplements can never take the place of a healthy diet”.
Further to add “Foods are so complex, offering not only vitamins and minerals, but fiber, nutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats), phytochemicals, and a whole host of nutritious substances that science has not fully identified that work together with other foods and provide the benefits of a healthy eating pattern”.
Then also the ADA recognizes that some people would definitely require supplements, as the vitamins and / or minerals that are needed in the body are hard to get in adequate amounts in the diet. These groups include:
- Nursing mothers
- Strict vegetarians
- People withfood allergies or intolerances
- Senior citizens
Those with diseases such as cancer, or kidney, cardiovascular, or bone disease.
The main types of dietary supplements include:
- Botanicals (derived from plants and possibly including herbs)
- Fatty Acids
- Other Dietary Supplements
Dietary supplements include everything from vitamins and minerals to herbs such as cinnamon and St. John’s wort.
Dietary supplements also come in a number of forms including:
They are sold from a number of retailers including:
- Grocery stores
- Vitamin and health food stores
- Mail-order catalogs