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:

  • Vitamins
  • Minerals
  • Echinacea
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids
  • Ginger
  • St. John’s Wort
  • Glucosamine
  • Chondroitin Sulphate
  • Fiber
  • Saw Palmetto
  • Acidophilus

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.

Commonly Asked Questions About Dietary Supplements

Yes, but the amount of scientific evidence available to demonstrate the claims of various dietary supplement ingredients can vary. Some dietary supplement ingredients, like calcium and vitamin D, have been studied extensively, so their health benefits are well known and well documented. Other dietary supplement ingredients may have not been studied as much. The makers of dietary supplements must have evidence in their files to show that claims they make are truthful and not misleading. Manufacturers of dietary supplements containing new ingredients (those not sold as a dietary supplement before October 1994) must notify FDA of their intent to market a dietary supplement containing the new ingredient and provide information on the safety of the product.

Dietary supplements are available at a wide variety of stores, including supermarkets, health food stores, direct sellers, and convenience stores and are also available for purchase via the Internet. If you choose to purchase a dietary supplement from an Internet site, it is important to be sure that the company is well-known and trusted.

Most of the dietary supplements on the market today have an excellent safety record, and their manufacturers comply with all requirements for product ingredients, claims, and labeling. However, FDA does occasionally find dietary supplement products that do not comply with these requirements.

It’s always best to purchase dietary supplements and all other types of health products from a trusted company. Be especially careful when purchasing dietary supplements from the Internet. If a claim sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Avoid purchasing dietary supplements that promise miracle results, or say that they work in a short amount of time (i.e., “fast” or “rapid action”), or claim to be “totally safe.”

Recently, the FDA has observed a small number of manufacturers attempting to market dietary supplements containing extra ingredients not listed on the product label. This has occurred mostly in products intended for weight loss, body building, and sexual enhancement. Know what you are taking. The FDA maintains a website on health fraud scams. For more information, please visit the FDA’s website.

Not necessarily. Do not assume that a product labeled as “natural” will be safer than a product that is not.

Structure/function claims describe the role of a nutrient or dietary ingredient in affecting the structure or function of the body in humans. An example of this would be “calcium builds strong bones.” If a dietary supplement label includes a structure/function claim, it must also state that FDA has not evaluated the claim and that the dietary supplement product is not intended to “diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”