Become supplement savvy

March 14, 2005|by Lynn Little

It is estimated that more than half of all Americans take a dietary supplement. According to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act approved by Congress in 1994, the term "dietary supplement" refers to a wide range of products, including vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids, enzymes, hormones, concentrates, extracts and metabolites taken orally that contain an ingredient meant to supplement the diet. About 30,000 products are marketed as dietary supplements in the United States, making the industry worth more than $17 billion per year.

The Food and Drug Administration regulates dietary supplements under a different set of regulations than those covering "conventional" foods and drug products (prescription and over-the-counter). Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), the dietary supplement manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that a dietary supplement is safe before it is marketed. The FDA is responsible for taking action against any unsafe dietary supplement product after it reaches the market. Generally, manufacturers do not need to register their products with the FDA nor get FDA approval before producing or selling dietary supplements. Manufacturers must make sure that product label information is truthful and not misleading.


Despite dietary supplements becoming big business, manufacturing standards for quality, potency and effectiveness are inconsistent. While many supplement manufacturers do provide reliable product information, others use questionable marketing tactics and might provide misleading information.

Consumers thinking about taking a supplement need to take control and become supplement savvy.

The American Dietetic Association offers the following guidelines for supplement use:

· Talk to your doctor before you take any type of supplement, especially if you are younger than 18, pregnant or breast-feeding, chronically ill, elderly or taking prescription or over-the-counter medications. Be prepared to discuss the supplement name, type and recommended dosage.

· Look for products labeled with the voluntary USP (United States Pharmacopeia) or NF (National Formulary) letters, which indicate that the manufacturer self-reports voluntary standards of quality.

· Realize that "natural" is not synonymous with "safe."

· Unless instructed by your health-care provider to do otherwise, stick with the dosage on the label and heed all warnings.

· Follow the directions printed on the label. Some supplements are more effective taken with food; others on an empty stomach.

· Keep dietary supplements in a safe location - away from places where children can reach them.

· Be skeptical of label or advertising claims. Determine if reliable scientific evidence exists to support the claims. Be wary of claims that seem exaggerated or unrealistic, as well as those promising a quick fix.

· Consider contacting the manufacturer for more information about the specific product you are considering purchasing. Ask for any research-based information the company can provide to substantiate claims made for the product. Also, ask for the results of any testing conducted to ensure the safety of the ingredients in the product.

No supplement should be used as a replacement for a healthful diet. Only food can provide the optimal mixture of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and other substances for good health.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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