Nutrition Column – Become Supplement Savvy

It is estimated that more than half of all Americans take some type of dietary supplement. According to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act approved by Congress in 1994, the term "dietary supplement" refers to a wide range of products including vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids, enzymes, hormones, concentrates, extracts and metabolites taken orally that contain an ingredient meant to supplement the diet. Currently, there are about 30,000 products marketed in the United States as dietary supplements, making the industry worth more than $17 billion per year.

Yet, despite the fact that dietary supplements have become big business, manufacturing standards for quality, potency and effectiveness are inconsistent in many cases. Furthermore, unlike food and drugs, which are highly regulated by the U.S. government, the Food and Drug Administration does not require supplements to be tested for safety and effectiveness before they are launched into the marketplace.

While many supplement manufacturers do provide reliable product information, others use questionable marketing tactics and may provide misleading information in part due to limited government regulation. Therefore, consumers thinking about taking a supplement need to take control and become supplement savvy. The American Dietetic Association offers the following guidelines for supplement use.

– Talk to your doctor before you take any type of supplement, especially if you are under age 18, pregnant or breastfeeding, chronically ill, elderly or taking prescription or over-the-counter medications. Be prepared to discuss the supplement name, type, and recommended dosage.

– Look for products labeled with the voluntary USP (United States Pharmacopeia) or NF (National Formulary) letters, which indicate that the manufacturer self-reports voluntary standards of quality.

– Remember that "natural" is not synonymous with "safe."

– Unless instructed by your health care provider to do otherwise, stick with the dosage on the label and heed all warnings.

– Follow the directions printed on the label. Some supplements are more effective taken with food; others on an empty stomach.

– Keep dietary supplements in a safe location – away from places where children may be able to reach them.

– Be skeptical of label or advertising claims. Determine if reliable scientific evidence exists to support the claims. Be wary of claims that seem exaggerated or unrealistic as well as those promising a quick fix.

– Consider contacting the manufacturer for more information about the specific product you are considering purchasing. Ask for any research-based information the company can provide to substantiate claims made for the product and the results of any testing conducted to ensure the safety and efficacy of the ingredients in the product.

– Lastly, keep in mind that no supplement should be used as a replacement for a healthful diet. Only food can provide the optimal mixture of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and other substances for good health.

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by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension