The Truth About Supplements

As the dietary supplement market grows, as does the question of what to take, if anything.


What vitamins, minerals, supplements, or herbs do you take daily, if any?

Perhaps vitamin D, fish oil, a multivitamin, probiotics, or magnesium?

Maybe it varies and you don’t have a set regimen.

Or none at all, because you don’t know what to take.

No matter what you do or don’t take, it makes sense if supplements have ever left you feeling lost or confused. Supplements claim to do it all, from lowering stress and anxiety levels to enhancing immune function, accelerating weight loss, improving mood, and much more. The options are endless and overwhelming. As the already massive dietary supplement market continues to steadily grow, as does the questioning for what to take, if anything at all.

Well a lesser-known truth is that dietary supplements are meant to do just that – supplement the diet.

Do you know what exactly makes a supplement, a supplement?

A dietary supplement is a product taken by mouth in the form of capsule, tablet, gel-cap, powder, or other non-food forms that contains one or more of the following: vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, enzymes, concentrates, or metabolites.

They are not meant to fix a “bad diet” or compensate for less than ideal eating habits. Time and time again, scientists have comprehensively agreed that regularly eating fruits, vegetables, and functional foods promotes health and wellness and decreases the overall risk of disease.

What’s a functional food?

Functional foods are foods thought to provide a health benefit beyond that of basic nutrition. For example, tomato sauce is rich is lycopene, a compound that’s part of the carotenoid family, which can reduce the risk of prostate cancer, thus making tomato sauce a functional food.

How though? What takes an ordinary food and makes it extraordinary with qualities beyond that of basic nutrition? Functional foods obtain their health-promoting properties from naturally occurring compounds called phytochemicals, or phytonutrients. These phytonutrients, found in plants, support the plant by protecting against strong UV rays and aiding in the ability to resist bacteria, fungi, and free radical damage.

Phytochemicals can positively impact our health, yet aren’t essential for life (whereas certain vitamins and minerals are essential). When consumed, phytochemicals end up in tissues and produce similar health benefits for humans as they do for plants; pretty cool!

You might be thinking, if phytonutrients are so advantageous, why can’t we just supplement with them? In short, it’s not fully known how phytochemicals function and provide health benefits, therefore they cannot be isolated and transferred to a supplement (for now).

Food, Drugs, and Supplements

Now that we’ve covered what makes a food functional, let’s differentiate between these three.

A food is a product, including all of the ingredients and additives comprising said product, which humans or animals eat or drink for nutrition or pleasure. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) refers to these products as conventional foods.

A drug is a chemical substance or medicine intended to diagnose, treat, alleviate, prevent, and/or cure disease. The FDA regulates drugs very meticulously. Drugs must undergo extensive studies for effectiveness, safety, dosing, as well as interactions with other substances before being marketed. Once on the market, the drug is then closely monitored where if it is shown to be unsafe, the FDA can quickly remove it from the market.

With much looser regulations than the abovementioned, 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 prior to approval nor are they regulated as closely.

Supplement manufacturers can actually market their products without FDA approval. If a supplement contains a new ingredient, the manufacturer must provide the FDA with information at least 75 days prior to marketing to show that the ingredient is safe. The caveat though is that formal approval is not required and the information provided by the manufacturer proving the safety of the ingredient does NOT have to be backed by scientific evidence.

To restrict the sale and/or use of a dietary supplement, the FDA first must prove that the product is unsafe after it’s already been on the market; a process that could frighteningly take years.

The sweeping claims that can be made about supplements

Think of claims as the “hook” – they’re what draw consumers in by appealing to your emotions, struggles, and deepest desires. With a strong hook and the right marketing, these claims can lead you to believe that you need that company’s product to achieve your most ideal, best self.

Obviously, companies need to sell their product to generate income and stay in business. These claims not only help them make sales, but compete in an already competitive, highly saturated market. With money intentionally in mind, many companies are willing to fully leverage the leeway that they have with claims, which often means tossing ethics aside unfortunately.

The self-esteem of consumers is one of the many costs incurred when ethics are disregarded. The companies and corporations behind said claims have a singular end goal in mind: sell the product. In the process of trying to sell consumers (you and I), our insecurities – often related to our health and body image – are ruthlessly exploited.

Once a product meets FDA guidelines, it can make a health claim based on the contents and nutrients within the product. Say a certain brand of tofu contains 6.25 or more grams of soy protein per serving or a cup of oatmeal has an adequate amount of beta-glucan fiber, a health claim can then be drawn from the nutritional information to advertise that the tofu and oatmeal decrease the risk of heart disease.

Then there are structural and functional claims, which are based on the nutritive, potentially beneficial value of the food or product. Compared to health claims, the FDA is even more lenient with the authorization and regulation of structural and functional claims. These claims can be formed entirely on the manufacturer’s review of the product or their own interpretation of scientific literature – which is incredibly disturbing.

Examples of structural and functional claims:

  • Orange juice contains vitamin A, vitamin E, and zinc and can be marketed with the ability “to support natural defenses” or “bolster your immune system”
  • Cereal with St. John’s wort and kava extract can be advertised as being “accented with herbs to support mental and emotional balance”

While there may be a sliver of truth behind some structural and functional claims, many companies use these claims to exaggerate the plausible and possible health benefits of certain ingredients and deliberately confuse consumers.

Despite the enticing declarations, scientific evidence on efficacy and long-term safety often lack in the claims made of dietary products. How can manufacturers be allowed to make such vast claims without scientific evidence to back them up? The First Amendment. They have the freedom to inform or deceive – it’s up to the consumer to discriminate fact from fiction.

So, who should take supplements? Which ones? And how much?

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to take supplements. All vitamins, minerals, and nutrients can be obtained through a wholesome, balanced, diverse diet.

Though moderate supplementation is appropriate for those with specific, elevated needs such as pregnant or breastfeeding women, infants, children, the elderly, specific medical conditions and illnesses, drug or alcohol dependence, allergies and sensitivities, food insecurities or eating disorders, and severe food restrictions (think vegans or vegetarians).

Despite this, a myriad of people continue to haphazardly dish out money on supplements (that may be unnecessary) rather than investing in quality, whole food or consulting their doctor to determine their specific needs.

If you feel so inclined to take a daily supplement, choose a multivitamin with at least 20 different vitamins and minerals, none of which are exceeding 100% of the Daily Value (DV).

While it pertains to chocolate and sprinkles, the more the merrier doesn’t apply to vitamins and minerals. Depending on the brand, potency, and quality of the product, the ingredients in supplements can range anywhere from 10% to 1,000% of the DV. Taking vitamins in excessive amounts is referred to as megadosing. An excess of one vitamin or mineral can create a deficiency in another and interfere with the absorption of other necessary nutrients. Certain vitamins can have pharmacological activity – meaning it can act as a drug – when taken at megadose levels.

How exactly can megadosing do more harm than good?

  • Vitamin B6 at 50 to 100 times the DV can cause nerve damage
  • 10-20mg of niacin acts as a B vitamin, but at a 50-100x increase, it acts as a drug by lowering blood lipid levels
  • Excess antioxidants can counteract chemotherapy and radiation that’s aimed at the oxidative destruction of cancer cells
  • Vitamin E in exceedingly high values can interfere with blood clotting and the function of vitamin K

Even if most dietary supplements are safe for the average, able-bodied person, some contain active ingredients and contaminants that can potentially cause serious harm. In one sample study, 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. As alarming as that is, it goes to show that you don’t really know what those seemingly fruitful supplements lining grocery store shelves, gyms, and household cabinets actually have in them.

How to choose a supplement

Now with all of the misleading, contradicting, precarious, and even fallacious supplements available, how do you decide which ones to take? Consider some of the following questions and concerns:

  • Why do I need or want to take this supplement? Is it suitable for me? Could this interact with any prescription or over-the-counter medications I’m taking?
  • Is the nutrient in this supplement nonessential (meaning the body can produce it naturally) or essential (the body cannot synthesize it, so it needs to be obtained via food)? Do I really need this?
  • If I’m lacking in a certain vitamin or mineral, can I consume it through fortified foods or foods rich in the nutrient instead of a supplement? For example, a calcium-fortified orange juice if you’re dairy-free, lactose-intolerant, or calcium deficient.
  • Is the quantity enough to have an effect or is it insignificant? Compare the milligrams or units in the supplement to how much can be acquired through food; chances are the food option is more cost-efficient too. What happens if I take more than I need and exceed the DV?
  • What’s the bioavailability? So after it’s ingested, can the supplement successfully cross the intestine and travel to the claimed site of action within my body?
  • Does this product have supporting scientific evidence? Was the scientific experiment controlled to eliminate a placebo effect? Are there any long-term effects I should be aware of?
  • Who’s selling this? Is it through a multi-level marketing company where someone makes a commission on what I buy? Knowing that manufacturers can market without approval, do I trust this company?
  • Is there a USP (U.S. Pharmocopeia, a nonprofit organization established in 1820 setting quality standards on a range of healthcare products) verification mark?
  • What is the product promising? Does it seem miraculous, unrealistic, or exaggerated at all? Always assess and research with skepticism – if it sounds too good to be true, it most likely is!

A little food for thought to keep in mind: the most frequently recalled products due to poor quality, deceitful or false claims, and fraudulent ingredients are supplements promoted for body composition, bodybuilding, sexual enhancement, and weight loss.

Hopefully now, you can go forth feeling more informed and confident in your choices as a consumer. And as always, please consult with your doctor about what, if any, supplements you may need to take as they are in the best position to assess and recommend specific supplements that are most fitting for you based on your health history, individual needs, and goals.

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