The Ugly Truth About Dietary Supplements
Updated: Mar 18, 2021
Herbal supplements and multivitamins everything you need to know
If you are starting or in the middle of your wellness journey you have probably considered taking dietary supplements (multivitamins, herbal supplements, etc.) at some point in time.
People take dietary supplements for several different reasons. Most take dietary supplements because they believe that dietary products are safe and they’re derived from nature. Others take them due to the desire to control one’s health.
No matter the reason it is important to know that dietary supplements are not always what they are cracked up to be due to poor regulation by the FDA and the tendency for consumers to fall victim to false claims and marketing tricks made by dietary supplement manufacturers.
What you think may be inside of your multivitamin, dietary, or herbal supplement, may not actually be what you think it is.
Therefore, when choosing a dietary supplement, you should ask yourself the following questions:
Where do the ingredients listed in the supplement come from?
Whether or not the ingredients inside the supplement are natural or synthetic?
Who ensures that this supplement is safe for me to purchase and take?
How can I trust that this supplement contains exactly what it says it does and does not contain any contaminants?
How will I be able to determine if this supplement is best for me?
Finding the answers to these questions can help you navigate the large and forever changing world of dietary supplements. There are tons of good dietary supplements out there but there are also some bad ones.
To help resolve the uncertainty around dietary supplements, I have gathered some information to help you understand more about them. Consequently, I hope that from here on out you will be able to make sound decisions about taking dietary supplements and know how to properly utilize them to improve your health.
What is a dietary supplement?
First let’s define a dietary supplement. According to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) a dietary supplement is defined as:
“a product (other than tobacco) intended to supplement the diet that bears or contains one or more of the following dietary ingredients: a vitamin; a mineral; an herb or other botanical; an amino acid; a dietary substance for use by man to supplement the diet by increasing the total dietary intake; oral concentrate, metabolite, constituent, extract, or combination of any ingredient previously described.”
Dietary supplements cover a broad span of products. These products include multivitamins, herbal and protein supplements. Dietary supplements can also come in many different dosage forms. They can come as liquids, capsules, tablets, softgels, and powders.
Who regulates dietary supplements?
The ugly truth about dietary supplements is that they are classified as “foods” not drugs meaning there are no strict regulations put in place by the FDA to ensure that dietary supplements are safe and effective before people are able to purchase and consume them, like there are for over-the-counter drugs and prescription medications. In fact, the FDA has the following statement on their website:
“[The] FDA is not authorized to review dietary supplement products for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed…the manufacturers and distributors of dietary supplements are responsible for making sure their products are safe BEFORE they go to market.
If the dietary supplement contains a NEW ingredient, manufacturers must notify FDA about that ingredient prior to marketing. However, the notification will only be reviewed by FDA (not approved) and only for safety, not effectiveness.”
Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) supplements are supposed to be produced in a quality manner with the promise that they do not contain any contaminants and are accurately labeled to according to the current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMPs) and labeling regulations.
In 2007, the FDA finalized its guidance for the cGMPs of dietary supplements. This guidance did the following:
Gave supplement manufacturers the authority to set their own standards for producing, packaging, and ingredient testing of dietary supplements without having to disclose safety data
Limited the FDA’s control over the use of dietary supplements to post-marketing surveillance, meaning that the FDA can pull dietary supplements off the market if they are found to be unsafe or if the claims on the products are false or misleading.
Required dietary supplement labels to include the name and location of the manufacturer and/or distributor
Prevented supplement manufacturers from making misleading health claims for their products like “this product can cure heart disease” or “this product is used for arthritis” and had them switch to less persuasive language like “supports heart health”
Required some variation of the following disclaimer be printed on their product labels “this product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”
Are all supplements natural?
Supplements can either be natural, synthetic, or nature-identical synthetic.
The nutrients found in naturally sourced supplements come from vegetable, animal, or mineral sources. Synthetic supplement nutrients are created in a lab and are different from the ingredients found in nature. Nature-identical synthetic supplements are also completely created in a lab except they are chemically identical to the ingredients found in nature.
Most of the dietary supplements available are classified as nature-identical synthetic. Two reasons for this is that the nature-identical supplements cost less and natural resources are becoming more and more scarce.
If you are like me then you are probably wondering which type of supplement is better natural, synthetic, or nature-identical synthetic? Surprisingly, I was able to find clinical data supporting the beneficial use of all of types. With that being said, I cannot firmly say that naturally sourced supplements are better than the nature-identical synthetic or synthetic supplements.
Although there is conflicting evidence suggesting which source of dietary supplement is more beneficial, the common theme amongst the research is that dietary supplements should in no way, shape, or form be considered a replacement for a balanced, healthy diet. Getting natural vitamins and nutrients from whole foods in your normal diet is always the better option.
Because supplement manufacturers make their own standards for products, there is no set percentage requirement stating how much of a naturally sourced nutrient needs to be in a product for the manufacturer to be able to market it as “natural”. This means that a product could be made of 5% natural nutrients mixed with 95% synthetic ingredients and the manufacturer could still label it as being “natural or naturally sourced.”
Also, products that are nature-identical synthetic are occasionally marketed as “natural” because technically although the product was made in the lab it is chemically similar to what’s found in nature.
Are there any other concerns about dietary supplements?
Another concern that comes up due to the poor regulation of dietary supplements, is how much of the supplement’s nutrients “actually” gets absorbed into your body (bioavailability) after taking it.
Because of the variance in standards, not much data is collected to compare bioavailability amongst similar supplements. Also, most tests to see if the product is actually broken down by the body and made available are tested in animal cells (in vitro) not in humans (in vivo).
Therefore, there is no guarantee that you’ll absorb all, some, or any of the nutrients from the supplement that you ingest.
What should be my takeaway from this information?
Taking dietary supplements can sometimes be beneficial to your health. Multivitamins and vitamin supplements can increase nutrient levels if you are deficient. In addition, certain herbs, vitamins, and minerals have been clinically proven to improve different health aliments and problems.
Most importantly, dietary supplements play a major role in holistic medicine. People just need to be aware of the poor regulations surrounding certain health and wellness supplements and take the time out to research the specific manufacturers of these products before they decide to take them.
"Take care of your body. It's the only place you have to live." -Jim Rohn
For tips on how to choose supplements and things to look out for please head on over our next blog post MCW's Step by Step Guide to Choosing Dietary Supplements.
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All About Where Vitamin Supplements Come From. Precision Nutrition. (2019, December 30). https://www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-vitamin-supplements.
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. What You Need to Know about Dietary Supplements. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/food/buy-store-serve-safe-food/what-you-need-know-about-dietary-supplements.
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