Supplements: General Info

Dietary supplements are products that are taken orally to supplement a diet. The supplements can be in the form of pills, soft gels, gel caps, capsules, tablets, powders, or liquids. They must contain “dietary ingredients,” from vitamins to minerals to herbs, amino acids, enzymes, organ tissues, glandulars, and metabolites. Dietary supplements can be helpful aides in weight loss programs. However, the consumer should be careful when evaluating the potential benefits of supplements. Although supplements are widely available over-the-counter, the consumer may want to consult a physician before taking any. 

Benefits of dietary supplements

There are a variety of reasons for taking dietary supplements, most of which are aimed primarily at promoting good health. More specific reasons include: supplementing vitamin and mineral intake, improving sleep, preventing osteoporosis, easing arthritic pains, and preventing colds. Scientific evidence indicates that supplements are effective for some, but not all, of these purposes. Relevant information is provided by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). 

There are a number of supplements that are specifically marketed as weight-loss supplements. However, there is little scientific evidence as to the effectiveness of those supplements. A few, such as ephedra, have even been found to have harmful side effects. 

Dietary supplement safety

Dietary supplements are required to be safe and effective. However, manufacturers do not need to prove safety prior to marketing their products. 

A basic requirement for labels is that they must be truthful and not misleading. The FDA monitors the correct labeling of supplements. However, manufacturers do not need to obtain FDA approval in advance of marketing their supplements. 

Unlike drug distributors, makers of dietary supplements cannot claim that the supplements can be used to cure, prevent, or treat diseases. Claims can be made about a relationship between supplement ingredients and reducing the risk of diseases or other health problems. Labels can also make claims about the nutrient value of the supplements. There can be claims about how the supplement can affect organs or systems in the body. 

Dietary supplements are treated as foods rather than as drugs. Manufacturers do not need to obtain FDA approval to market new supplements unless the supplement contains a “new dietary ingredient.” Ingredients are defined to be new only if they were not sold as dietary ingredients in the United States prior to October 15, 1994. Supplement manufacturers determine if ingredients are new. 

Taking dietary supplements

Consumers should exercise care when taking dietary supplements, especially if the supplements are used as alternative or complementary medicines. Dietary supplements should not be used as the sole item of a meal or diet. The following are some conditions that indicate the need to consult a physician before beginning use of a supplement:

  • The dietary supplement will be used to replace current prescribed medicines.
  • The dietary supplement will be taken in conjunction with prescribed or over-the-counter medicines.
  • A chronic medical condition exists.
  • Surgery is expected.
  • The consumer is pregnant or nursing.
  • The dietary supplement will be given to a child.

For information on taking supplements as a senior see the following article from TheDietChannel: Vitamins: Supplement suggestions for people 50+.