What Are Dietary Supplements?
Dietary supplements are products that may contain vitamins, minerals, botanical or herbal ingredients, amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), and enzymes (complex proteins that speed up biochemical reactions). They are sold in various forms, including tablets, capsules, softgels, gelcaps, or liquids. They are meant to supplement a diet but should not be considered a substitute for food.
Examples of commonly used dietary supplements:
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- St. John’s Wort
- Chondroitin Sulphate
- Saw Palmetto
Why Consumers Use Dietary Supplements
Vitamins are essential for good health through every stage of life. Our bodies require a broad variety of vitamins and minerals to function properly, yet it can be challenging to get all the nutrients we need from food alone.
Consumers should strive to maintain an overall healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and visiting a healthcare provider regularly. Dietary supplements can be used responsibly as a way to fill nutritional gaps and enhance health.
People use dietary supplements for a number of reasons, including:
- Maintaining their general health
- Supporting mental and sports-related performance
- Providing immune system support
Dietary Supplements and Health Claims
It’s important to note that dietary supplements are not medicines. In general, manufacturers of dietary supplements are not allowed to say that their products can diagnose, cure, treat, or, with special exceptions, prevent disease. For instance, a dietary supplement cannot make a claim to “reduce arthritis pain” or “treat heart disease.” However, based on evidence, manufacturers can say that their dietary supplement contributes to health maintenance, well-being, or supports a function of the body.
Where backed by sufficient evidence, some supplements may make claims about the role of an ingredient in preventing certain conditions. For example: “Adequate folate in healthful diets may reduce a woman’s risk of having a child with a brain or spinal cord birth defect.”
Government Oversight of Dietary Supplements
The FDA does not approve dietary supplements for safety before they are marketed. If a dietary supplement contains a new ingredient (one that was not marketed before October 1994), that ingredient will be reviewed for safety by the FDA prior to marketing.
Manufacturers of dietary supplements are responsible for their safety, so must follow a number of standards meant to ensure quality in the manufacturing, packaging, and labeling of their products. Dietary supplement manufacturers must also keep track of adverse events reported in association with their products and report all serious adverse events to the FDA. Advertising of dietary supplements is regulated by the Federal Trade Commission.
Important Tips for Safe Use
Used as directed, dietary supplements have a wide margin of safety but they do contain ingredients that have biological effects on the body. In some situations, this could lead to an adverse event associated with the use of the product.
- Always follow the instructions on the label when taking dietary supplements and do not take more than the recommended dose.
- Inform your healthcare provider about any supplements you are taking, especially if you plan to have a surgical procedure.
- If you think you have suffered a serious harmful effect or illness in association with the use of a dietary supplement, see your healthcare provider immediately.
- You are also encouraged to report this event to FDA’s MedWatch Hotline at 1-800-FDA-1088.