The majority of adults in the United States take one or more dietary supplements either every day or occasionally. Today’s dietary supplements include vitamins, minerals, herbals and botanicals, amino acids, enzymes, and many other products. Dietary supplements come in a variety of forms: traditional tablets, capsules, and powders, as well as drinks and energy bars. Popular supplements include vitamins D and E; minerals like calcium and iron; herbs such as echinacea and garlic; and specialty products like glucosamine, probiotics, and fish oils.
The Supplement Label
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. The manufacturer suggests the serving size, but you or your health care provider might decide that a different amount is more appropriate for you.
If you don’t eat a nutritious variety of foods, some supplements might help you get adequate amounts of essential nutrients. However, supplements can’t take the place of the variety of foods that are important to a healthy diet. Good sources of information on eating well include the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and MyPlate.
Dietary supplements are complex products. The FDA has established quality standards for dietary supplements to help ensure their identity, purity, strength, and composition. These standards are designed to prevent the inclusion of the wrong ingredient, the addition of too much or too little of an ingredient, the possibility of contamination, and the improper packaging and labeling of a product. The FDA periodically inspects facilities that manufacture dietary supplements.
Keep in Mind
- Don’t decide to take dietary supplements to treat a health condition that you have diagnosed yourself, without consulting a health care provider.
- Don’t take supplements in place of, or in combination with, prescribed medications without your health care provider’s approval.
- Check with your health care provider about the supplements you take if you are scheduled to have any type of surgical procedure.
- The term “natural” doesn’t mean safe. A supplement’s safety depends on many things, such as its chemical makeup, how it works in the body, how it is prepared, and the dose used. Certain herbs (for example, comfrey and kava) can harm the liver.
Before taking a dietary supplement, ask yourself these questions:
- What are the potential health benefits of this dietary supplement product?
- What are its potential benefits for me?
- Does this product have any safety risks?
- What is the proper dose to take?
- How, when, and for how long should I take it?
If you don’t know the answers to these questions, talk to your health care providers.
Let your health care providers (including doctors, pharmacists, and dietitians) know which dietary supplements you’re taking so that you can discuss what’s best for your overall health. Your health care provider can help you determine which supplements, if any, might be valuable for you.
Keep a record of the supplements you take in one place, just as you should be doing for all of your medicines. Note the specific product name, the dose you take, how often you take it, and the reason why you use each one. You can also bring the products you use with you when you see your health care provider.
Federal Regulation of Dietary Supplements
Dietary supplements are products intended to supplement the diet. They are not drugs and, therefore, are not intended to treat, diagnose, mitigate, prevent, or cure diseases. The FDA is the federal agency that oversees both dietary supplements and medicines.
In general, the FDA regulations for dietary supplements are different from those for prescription or over-the-counter drugs. Unlike drugs, which must be approved by the FDA before they can be marketed, dietary supplements do not require premarket review or approval by the FDA. While the supplement company is responsible for having evidence that their products are safe and the label claims are truthful and not misleading, they do not have to provide that evidence to the FDA before the product is marketed.
Dietary supplement labels may carry certain types of health-related claims. Manufacturers are permitted to say, for example, that a dietary supplement addresses a nutrient deficiency, supports health, or is linked to a particular body function (like immunity or heart health). Such a claim must be followed by the words, “This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”
Manufacturers must follow certain good manufacturing practices to ensure the identity, purity, strength, and composition of their products. If the FDA finds a product to be unsafe or otherwise unfit for human consumption, it may take enforcement action to remove the product from the marketplace or work with the manufacturer to voluntarily recall the product.
Also, once a dietary supplement is on the market, the FDA monitors information on the product’s label and package insert to make sure that information about the supplement’s content is accurate and that any claims made for the product are truthful and not misleading. The Federal Trade Commission, which polices product advertising, also requires all information about a dietary supplement product to be truthful and not misleading.
The federal government can take legal action against companies and Web sites that sell dietary supplements when the companies make false or deceptive statements about their products, if they promote them as treatments or cures for diseases, or if their products are unsafe.