Walk Talk Nutrition: supplements

supplementlabelsSafe? Necessary? Effective?

With more than half of US adults taking supplements, we thought this $26 billion industry deserved some professional scrutiny.  There are over 54,000 dietary supplements on the market, and contrary to popular belief, they are not approved by the FDA for effectiveness and safety.  Safety is the responsibility of the manufacturers.  The FDA only reviews the use of new ingredients in supplements, and those reviews are only for safety.

Both of us do take some supplements, and we agree vitamin and mineral supplements are useful for health, when used properly.  But we both have some serious reservations about aspects of the supplement industry and consumers’ uninformed supplement use.  Kathy’s main concerns are product safety and contamination.  Supplements can interact with prescription medications.  Supplements made by unscrupulous manufacturers may contain undeclared allergens, contaminants or traces of prescription drugs.  Formulas at particular risk for these problems include:

  • weight loss
  • sexual enhancement
  • body building/athletic performance
  • diabetes

Donna’s concerns are more conceptual.  Nutrients are not drugs, yet many people use them like some kind of natural drug, and expect nutritional supplements to cure diseases.  They do not fix a bad diet.  Megadoses are a waste.  Herbs are not nutrients, but for some reason people call them “dietary” supplements (there is no nutritional requirement for herbs).

Supplement labels give a “% Daily Value” for nutrient doses in the product.  What does this mean?  It is not intended as a measure of your personal requirement for any nutrient.  It’s more like a general guideline.  Food labels use this term, too.  For information on recommended intakes based on age and gender, see the Dietary Reference Intakes.

Some manufacturers do care about product safety; don’t assume they all do.   One way to determine safety is a USP mark on the label.  This means:

  1. the supplement contains the ingredients listed on the label in the amounts listed
  2. it does not contain harmful levels of specified contaminants
  3. the pills will break down and release into the body within a specified time
  4. the supplement has been manufactured according to FDA Good Manufacturing Practices using sanitary procedures.

While the USP mark is one way to know you’re buying a product that is safe, it does not guarantee that the supplement is effective.

If you believe you’ve experienced an adverse reaction to a dietary supplement, use the FDA’s MedWatch Program to report it.  You can sign up for the free FDA newsletter

For more information on dietary supplements:

Subscribe to FDA consumer alerts on product recalls

National Institute of Health Office of Dietary Supplements

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database (subscription required)

Nutrition.gov (Food and Nutrition Information Center)

Consumer Reports “Dangerous Supplements”

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics position on nutrient supplementation:

It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that the best nutrition-based strategy for promoting optimal health and reducing the risk of chronic disease is to wisely choose a wide variety of foods. Additional nutrients from supplements can help some people meet their nutrition needs as specified by science-based nutrition standards such as the Dietary Reference Intakes.

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