Do you take a dietary supplement? Well, if you’re like the majority of American’s, chances are, you have a bottle or two stashed away in your kitchen cabinets.

of Americans have taken a dietary supplement in the past 30 daysJAMA

According to a study published in the Journal of American Medical Association, 52% of Americans surveyed had taken a dietary supplement in the past 30 days.

What Is a Dietary Supplement?

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) website says a dietary supplement is a product intended for ingestion that contains a “dietary ingredient” intended to add further nutritional value to (supplement) the diet.

The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act defines a dietary ingredient as any of the following:

  • Vitamin
  • Mineral
  • Herb or other botanical
  • Amino acid
  • Dietary substance for use by man to supplement the diet by increasing the total dietary intake
  • Concentrate, metabolite, constituent, extract, or combination of the preceding substances

Dietary supplements often include one or more ingredients such as vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, and enzymes. They can be in many forms including tablets, capsules, gel caps, powders, liquids, and soft gels.

Are Dietary Supplements Safe?

Just how safe are these supplements that promise improved health, decreased pain, weight loss, or better sex? The answer to that question depends on who you ask, which leaves consumers with more questions than answers.

Dietary Supplement Safety Tips

  • Always consult with your doctor before starting to take a new supplement.
  • Read all labels and inserts to make sure you understand what the supplement does.
  • Research supplements using reputable sources – don’t rely on the manufacturer’s information alone.
  • Avoid supplements that promise a quick cure or change to your body.
  • If you suspect a dietary supplement is dangerous, report it to the Federal Trade Commission.

Some medical doctors regularly recommend dietary supplements, such as vitamin D to their patients—especially if they live in areas with very little exposure to sunshine. Calcium and omega-3 fatty acids are also often recommended to patients whose diets are lacking in these areas.

Many pregnant women leave their initial medical appointment with instructions to take a prenatal vitamin that contains folic acid, which decreases the risk of certain birth defects. But, more often than not, these examples are the exception—not the rule.

Compare this with a visit to an alternative medical specialist, such as a chiropractor or naturopath—where dietary supplements are routinely recommended as part of an overall treatment plan, and it’s easy to see how consumers receive mixed messages about the safety and effectiveness of supplements.

Government Regulation of Supplements

Many people assume that dietary supplements are regulated by the FDA similarly to food and drugs; however, this is not the case. In fact, there is very little regulation over the supplement industry, which has led to many cases of mistaken labels, false information, and even outright lying by companies that sell these supplements on the web and in stores.

In one high-profile case, the New York State Attorney General sent cease-and-desist letters to several top retailers that sell dietary supplements – including Target, Walmart, GNC and Walgreens – ordering them to stop sales of certain supplements until they could verify that the products contained the ingredients listed on their labels.

When the ingredients on a supplement’s label do not match what is actually in the box or bottle, there are two potential outcomes:

  • Foremost, consumers become victims of fraud, since they paid for one type of product but received something else altogether.
  • Secondly, consumer may be putting themselves or their loved ones at risk by giving them something containing unexpected ingredients.
  • Thirdly, consumers are not able to take advantage of the purported health benefits of the supplement, since the active ingredient is missing.

Unfortunately, it is hard for the average person to know whether a supplement actually contains the ingredients claimed on the label. However, if you suspect that a supplement you bought lists the wrong ingredients, you can report it to the FTC.

Read the Label

The bottom line is this: Do your research. Read the labels and know what each ingredient does individually and as part of a proprietary blend. You may find that certain supplements taken alone work well for you, but when taken in a blend, produce unfavorable side effects.

If you take any other medications, talk with your doctor and pharmacist about any contraindications a supplement may have with other medications. And if you feel any adverse side effects after taking a dietary supplement, stop using it and consult your medical provider immediately.

A nutrition label for a dietary supplement is called a “supplemental facts” panel. This label must include names and quantities of dietary ingredients, the serving size, and the servings per container. Take note of the dietary ingredients and amounts on each label and consider any other food products or supplements you are taking that may also contain similar ingredients. Taking too much of one particular ingredient can have dangerous consequences.

Do You Need a Dietary Supplement?

While dietary supplements may help those at nutritional risk get the extra nutrients they need, supplements may not be necessary for everyone. Therefore, the decision to take a dietary supplement should not be taken lightly. Here are a few key points to consider before taking this step:

  • Talk to your medical provider, pharmacist, or other medical professional who oversees your care.
  • If you do not have a health care provider, consider making an appointment to discuss your questions and concerns.
  • If you take any other medications or supplements, make sure to talk with a pharmacist or medical doctor about any contraindications.
  • Recognize that dietary supplements are not a substitution for prescribed medications. The intended use of dietary supplements (unlike drugs) is to help you get an adequate dietary intake of essential nutrients, not to treat, diagnose, prevent, or cure diseases.
  • Do an analysis of your diet to determine if you need to take a dietary supplement. While supplements can help you get vitamins and minerals that food normally provides, they should not be seen as a substitute for healthy eating. You may want to consult a registered dietician to assist you with this process.
  • Choose a supplement that follows the Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) set by the Food and Drug Administration.
  • Determine if the use is short-term or long-term. Some dietary supplements are used only for a specified amount of time (i.e., prenatal vitamins), whereas others are recommended for long-term use (i.e., vitamin D and calcium).
  • Consider the benefits. Do the benefits outweigh any negative side effects, financial expense of the supplement, or inconvenience of use?
  • How will you know if it’s working? Determining the effectiveness of a supplement can be difficult, so you need to determine how you will measure progress.