The dietary supplement industry is a multi-billion dollar one, but interestingly enough, it is still not very well-regulated. The FDA technically oversees the production of supplements, but there are not yet any provisions in the law books that allow the FDA to “approve” dietary supplements for safety or effectiveness before they reach the consumer. So before you start regularly using nutritional or dietary supplements, here are seven things that you should know:
1. You can’t judge a supplement by its package.
Nutritional supplements do not need FDA approval before they are sold. Nor does the FDA analyze the contents of dietary supplements. Once a dietary supplement is marketed, the FDA has to prove that the product is unsafe in order to restrict its use or to remove it from the market. Therefore, the content, strength and purity of supplements can, and do, vary.
2. The label is designed to impress you.
Words like: standardized, verified, certified, scientific formulation, men’s formula, women’s formula and more have no legal definitions; they are determined by the manufacturer of the product.
3. Unevaluated claims can be made on the label.
A health claim, a nutrient content claim or a structure/function claim can be stated on the label of any supplement. However, product labels containing such claims must also include a disclaimer that reads, “This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”
4. You should avoid supplements that are much higher than the Recommended Daily Allowance/Daily Value.
More is not necessarily better when it comes to supplements. In fact, the concentrated amounts of nutrients in some supplements can be toxic. Isolated from food, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, fiber and protein/amino acids have different properties when they’re digested by themselves rather than in their natural state as part of whole foods, and some of these properties can be harmful to the body.
5. We benefit when our nutrients come from whole foods.
Eating more vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans is the best way to get more antioxidants and phytochemicals. No pill, powder, herb or nutrition bar can give you what nature has already packed into our foods. The brilliance of natural foods is that these substances tend to work together in complex, synergistic ways for optimal health.
6. Taking supplements may overwhelm the body.
The body has a beautiful, natural way of fighting the damage that causes disease, but taking supplements may alter the body’s ability to do so. Also, if you take a supplement, you should be sure that it doesn’t interfere with any of your prescription medications.
7. Supplements are sometimes necessary.
While there are many unanswered questions and claims surrounding supplements, they can also be very helpful, and are generally required for treating a verified deficiency or a medical condition, such as anemia.
If you have a question about a specific supplement or group of supplements, I encourage you to submit your questions to the Nexus so that we can do our best to get you some answers.
Betsy Reynolds-Malear, M.S., R.D. is a registered dietician at Student Health.