The Truth About Supplements
Updated: Jul 29, 2019
Do you take any daily vitamins, minerals, or herbs? The dietary supplement market is significantly growing thus making it increasingly puzzling to know which supplements to choose, if any at all. Dietary supplements claim to do everything from lowering stress and anxiety levels, enhancing immune function, supporting weight loss, to improving mood. What exactly is a dietary supplement? A dietary supplement is a product taken by mouth in the form of capsule, powder, tablet, gel-cap, or other non-food forms that contains one of more of the following: vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, enzymes, concentrates, or metabolites.
Contrary to popular belief, dietary supplements are meant to do just that, supplement the diet. They are NOT meant to fix a “bad diet” or to compensate eating habits. Scientists have agreed that regularly eating fruits, vegetables, and functional foods promotes health and decreases the overall risk of disease.
What's a functional food?
Functional foods are thought to provide a health benefit beyond that of basic nutrition. What makes a functional food well, functional? Functional foods get their health-promoting properties from naturally occurring compounds called phytochemicals. Phytochemicals (AKA phytonutrients), found in plants, support the plant by aiding in the ability to resist bacteria and fungi, damages from free radicals, and protection against strong UV rays. When consumed by humans, phytochemicals end up in our tissues and produce similar health benefits.
Phytochemicals are substances that can positively impact our health yet they are NOT essential for life (vitamins are essential for life). For example, tomato sauce is rich in lycopene (a compound that is part of the carotenoid family) which can reduce the risk of prostate cancer, thus making tomato sauce a functional food. So if phytochemicals are so valuable, why can’t we supplement with phytochemicals? In short, it is not fully know how phytochemicals function and provide health benefits, therefore they cannot be isolated and transferred to a supplement.
Food vs. Drug vs. Dietary Supplement
Now that we’ve defined a functional food, let’s differentiate food, drugs, and supplements. A food is a product that we eat or drink including all ingredients/food additives comprising said product. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) refers to these products as conventional foods. A drug is a supplement intended to diagnose, treat, alleviate, prevent, and/or cure disease.
The FDA regulates drugs very meticulously. Drugs must undergo extensive studies of effectiveness, safety, interactions with other substances, and dosing before being marketed. Once on the market, the drug is closely monitored where if it is shown to be unsafe, the FDA can quickly remove it from the market. This is NOT true for dietary supplements; they have much looser regulations.
Dietary supplements and their ingredients are NOT considered food, food additives, or drugs so they do not have strict criteria that needs to be met for approval nor are they regulated as closely, so supplement manufacturers can actually market their products without FDA approval. If a supplement contains a new ingredient, the manufacturer provides the FDA with information 75 days prior to marketing to show that the ingredient is safe. This formal approval is not required though and the information provided does NOT have to be backed by scientific evidence. For the FDA to restrict the sale and/or use of a supplement, the FDA needs to prove the product is unsafe after it is on the market; a process that could take years.
The most frequently recalled products due to false, deceitful claims, poor quality, and/or fraudulent ingredients are those promoted for weight loss, sexual enhancement, body composition, and bodybuilding.
What claims can be made on dietary supplements?
Once a product meets FDA guidelines, it can make a health claim on the label based on the contents and nutrients in the product. The following can be used to create health claims: oatmeal with adequate amounts of beta-glucan fiber AND tofu with at least 6.25g of soy protein per 1 serving can both be advertised for decreasing the risk of heart disease.
Aside from health claims, there are also structural and functional claims. Structure/function claims are based on the foods nutritive, beneficial value. Compared to health claims, the regulation and authorization by the FDA is more lenient with structure/function claims. These claims can be based solely on the manufacturer’s review of the product or their own interpretation of scientific literature. Here are examples of structure/function claims:
Orange juice contains vitamin A, vitamin E, and zinc and can be marketed to “support natural defenses”
Cereal with St. John’s wort and kava extract can be marketed as “accented with herbs to support emotional and mental balance”
Many companies deliberately confuse consumers by exaggerating possible health benefits of certain ingredients. Despite the enticing labels and claims, scientific evidence of efficacy and long-term safety is often lacking in dietary products. How are manufacturers allowed to make such a vast variety of claims without scientific evidence? The First Amendment. They have the freedom to inform or deceive; it’s up to the consumers to discriminate fact from fiction.
So who needs supplements? And how many?
Moderate supplementation is acceptable for people who have specific, elevated needs such as pregnant or breastfeeding women, children, infants, the elderly, or those with allergies. Other exceptions are dietary restrictions (such as vegans, vegetarians or other severe food restrictions), illnesses, medical conditions, food insecurity, and dependence on drugs and/or alcohol. Despite this, so many people dish out loads of money on dietary supplements.
If you should take a daily multivitamin, find one with at least 20 different vitamins and minerals where none of which are exceeding 100% of the Daily Value (DV).
Depending on the brand, quality, and potency, supplements can have ingredients that range from 10% to 1,000% of the DV. The more the merrier doesn’t apply to vitamins and minerals. Taking vitamins in excessive amounts is referred to as megadosing. Certain vitamins at megadose levels can have “pharmacological activity” AKA it can act as a drug. An excess of certain nutrients can create deficiencies or interfere with the absorption of other necessary nutrients. Here are a few examples:
10-20 milligrams of niacin acts as a vitamin but at a 50-100x increase, it acts as a drug by lowering blood lipid levels
Vitamin B6 at 50-100x DV can cause nerve damage
Vitamin E at exceedingly high values can interfere with the normal use of vitamin K and blood clotting
Antioxidant nutrients can counteract with chemotherapy and/or radiation that’s aimed at the oxidative destruction of cancer cells
Many dietary supplements are most likely safe, but some contain active ingredients/contaminants that have the potential to cause serious harm. The Government Accounting Office found that 92% of herbal supplements sampled contained trace amounts of lead while 80% contained one other contaminant such as mercury. That goes to show that you truly don’t know what may be in the seemingly healthy supplements that are stocking your medicine cabinets.
How to Choose Your Supplements:
Now, how do you choose a supplement with all of the contradicting, potentially fallacious supplements that are available? Ask yourself some of these questions:
Use caution since manufacturers can market without approval
Why do I need this supplement?
Is it suitable for me?
Can this supplement interact with any current medications or over-the-counter medications?
If lacking in a certain vitamin/mineral, supplement with fortified products instead (ex: calcium-fortified orange juice if dairy-free or lactose-intolerant)
Is the quantity enough to even have an effect or is it insignificant? --- Compare the milligrams/units to how many units can be obtained from food.
Is the supplement essential or nonessential? (for example, there are essential and nonessential amino acids).
What happens if you take more than what the body needs (AKA exceed the DV)?
What is the bioavailability? AKA after it is ingested, can the supplement cross the intestine and travel to its claimed site of action within the body?
Does it promise too much or seem like a miracle product, unrealistic, or exaggerated? When assessing products, reading websites, etc. research with skepticism - if it sounds too good to be true, it most likely is!
Does the product have supporting scientific evidence? Are there any long-term effects? Was the scientific experiment controlled to eliminate a placebo effect?
Who’s selling it? Is it through a multi-level, pyramid scheme marketing company where someone at each level makes a commission on what you buy?
Look for USP verification mark (U.S. Pharmocopeia = non-profit organization established in 1820 setting quality standards on a range of health care products)
Hopefully now you feel a little more informed and confident in your choices as a consumer! There's a LOT more information on supplements and how to be more mindful of your eating habits my eBook and you can order yours here!