What are dietary/food supplements?
Dietary/food 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, 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
- Coenzyme Q10
Why Consumers Use Dietary/Food 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/food supplements can be used responsibly as a way to fill nutritional gaps and enhance health.
People use dietary/food supplements for a number of reasons, including:
- Maintaining their general health
- Supporting mental and sports-related performance
- Providing immune system support
Dietary/Food Supplements and Health Claims
It’s important to note that dietary/food supplements are not medicines. In general, manufacturers of dietary/food supplements are not allowed to say that their products can diagnose, cure, treat, or, with special exceptions, prevent disease. For instance, a dietary/food supplement cannot make a claim to "reduce arthritis pain" or "treat heart disease." However, based on evidence, manufacturers can say that their dietary/food 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."
Governance of Dietary/Food Supplements
The Department of Health has responsibility for national and EU legislation on food/dietary supplements within England. The responsibility for the policy area of food/dietary supplements legislation in Wales rests with the Welsh Assembly. The Food Standards Agency Devolved Administrations of Scotland, and Northern Ireland are responsible for national legislation in their own administrations where separate but similar Regulations apply.
The legislation is enforced through local Trading Standards Offices and Port Health Authorities.
Manufacturers of dietary/food supplements are responsible for their safety, so must follow a number of standards meant to ensure quality in the manufacturing, packaging, and labelling of their products.
The Advertising Codes enforced by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) reflect the requirements of the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation and refer to other legislation as appropriate.
Important Tips for Safe Use
Used as directed, dietary/food 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/food 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/food supplement, see your healthcare provider immediately.
Can I take dietary/food supplement products with prescription or OTC medicines?
Yes. However, because dietary/food supplements have a number of biological effects on the body, they can interact with some OTC medicines or prescription drugs, potentially leading to an adverse event. Prior to taking any dietary/food supplement, consumers should inform their healthcare provider about ALL of the products they are taking—prescription drugs, OTC medicines, AND dietary/food supplements.
Is there any scientific research on dietary/food supplement products?
Yes, but the amount of scientific evidence available to demonstrate the claims of various dietary/food supplement ingredients can vary. Some dietary/food supplement ingredients, like calcium and vitamin D, have been studied extensively, so their health benefits are well known and well documented. Other dietary/food 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.
Why it’s important where I buy dietary/food supplements from?
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. It is important to be sure that the company you are buying from is well-known and trusted.
How can I be sure that the dietary/food supplement I am taking is safe?
Most of the dietary/food supplements on the market today have an excellent safety record, and their manufacturers comply with all requirements for product ingredients, claims, and labelling. However, regulator does occasionally find dietary supplement products that do not comply with these requirements.
It’s always best to purchase dietary/food supplements and all other types of health products from a trusted company. Be especially careful when purchasing dietary/food supplements from the Internet. If a claim sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Avoid purchasing dietary/food supplements that promise miracle results.
Are dietary supplements labelled "natural" free of side effects?
Not necessarily. Do not assume that a product labelled as "natural" will be safer than a product that is not.