The essence of dietary supplements

March 15, 2006|by LYNN F. LITTLE

Americans are spending as much as $1.7 billion on dietary supplements each year, according to 2005 information from the American Dietetic Association. And some consumers are questioning the safety, necessity and effectiveness of these products. Some questions are:

· What is a supplement?

A dietary supplement can include vitamins, minerals, botanicals, enzymes and amino acids. A product can be identified as a supplement by the "supplement facts" panel printed on the label. Supplements are named as such because they are intended to be taken in addition to your regular diet.

· Do I need to take a supplement?

If you normally eat a diet based on the recommendations of My Pyramid and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, you might not require a supplement. However, many of us consume diets that are inadequate and we might benefit from supplements that provide the essential nutrients lacking in our diet. Many health professionals recommend that adults take a daily multivitamin to ensure that basic nutrition needs are being met. It is best to discuss the need for a supplement with your physician.


· How are supplements regulated?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has different regulations for supplements than it does for conventional food or medications. The FDA reviews this information and authorizes the marketing of the drug. Most supplements, however, do not have to be approved by the FDA before they are manufactured. Supplement manufacturers are responsible for ensuring the safety of their products and the accuracy of their labels before they release the supplement to consumers. The FDA becomes involved if the safety of a product already on the market is questioned. The product might be removed from the market by the FDA after it is proven to be unsafe.

· What is allowed on a label?

Supplement labels cannot claim to cure, treat or prevent a disease. They can, however, make three different types of claims. The first type of claim is called a health claim, which explains the relationship between a supplement and its health benefits.

The second type of claim that can be made is the nutrient content claim. This claim describes the level of ingredient in the supplement, such as 100-percent fat free.

The last claim that can be made is the structure/function claim. This claim states how the given ingredient affects structure or function in humans. An example of this would be that calcium helps to build strong bones. If this type of claim is made, the label must also state that the FDA has not evaluated the claim.

The lack of a caution on a package does not mean that there are no adverse effects related to the supplement.

· Are there risks involved with taking supplements?

Although supplements can help to promote health, they also might be a health risk. You must be cautious when taking supplements in combination with other supplements, or with medications. Some supplements interact with other supplements or specific medications. For example, vitamin K might decrease the effects of blood thinner medications, and St. John's wort interacts with antidepressant drugs and birth-control pills.

Certain supplements can be dangerous if taken in large amounts. It is best to receive the nutrition you need from conventional foods in your diet, but here are tips for those who use supplements:

· The term "natural" is not well-defined and does not ensure safety or effectiveness.

· Be skeptical of recommendations that are the result of a single research study.

· Reliable information about supplements can be found at: the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (, and at the Office of Dietary Supplements (

Be cautious with advice that ignores scientific research or the guidance of reputable organizations.

· Look for the term "USP Verified" on the label. This means that the U.S. Pharmacopeia organization, which sets the quality standards for supplements, has tested the ingredients used in the supplement and has verified the supplement for quality. Find out more about this organization at

- Elizabeth Hutzell, a dietetic intern from the University of Delaware, contributed to this column.

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

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