Dietary supplements are big business. In 2012, Americans spent $11.5 BILLION dollars on dietary supplements. And, dietary supplements are NOT food. The technical definition of a dietary supplement from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) 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. A “dietary ingredient” may be one, or any combination, of the following substances:
- a vitamin
- a mineral
- an herb or other botanical
- an amino acid
- a dietary substance for use by people to supplement the diet by increasing the total dietary intake
- a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, or extract
Dietary supplements may be found in many forms such as tablets, capsules, softgels, gelcaps, liquids, or powders. Some dietary supplements can help ensure that you get an adequate dietary intake of essential nutrients; others may help you reduce your risk of disease.
When I read that, my eyes swim. What? Basically, it sounds like companies can put just about anything they want in their products as long as they call it a “dietary supplement.” One of the ways you can tell whether a dietary supplement is worth your hard earned dollars is to read the Supplements Facts Panel. What is a Supplement Facts Panel? The Supplement Facts Panel is like the Nutrition Facts Panel on food. One of the biggest reasons for reading the Supplement Facts Panel is safety – are any of the ingredients unsafe or interact with medications you are taking. However, there are two big reasons Supplement Facts Panels can be confusing – ingredient names and proprietary blends.
Supplement Facts Panels should be straightforward, but often they are not. One of the biggest issues in understanding the ingredients on Supplement Facts Panels is that manufacturers often use pseudonyms for ingredients. For example, ginger is also known as: African Ginger, Ardraka, Black Ginger, Cochin Ginger, Gan Jiang, Gingembre, Gingembre Africain, Gingembre Cochin, Gingembre Indien, Gingembre Jamaïquain, Gingembre Noir, Ginger Essential Oil, Ginger Root, Huile Essentielle de Gingembre, Imber, Indian Ginger, Jamaica Ginger, Jengibre, Jiang, Kankyo, Kanshokyo, Nagara, Race Ginger, Racine de Gingembre, Rhizoma Zingiberi, Rhizoma Zingiberis, Rhizoma Zingiberis Recens, Shen Jiang, Sheng Jiang, Shoga, Shokyo, Shunthi, Srungavera, Sunth, Sunthi, Vishvabheshaja, Zingiberis Rhizoma, Zingiberis Siccatum Rhizoma, Zinzeberis, Zinziber Officinale, Zinziber Officinalis. I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember all those names. And, if I can’t remember the names, I don’t know if it is safe or if it interacts with any of the medications I’m taking.
The listing of “proprietary blends” are also confusing. The FDA requires that the “names and quantities of dietary ingredients present in your product” must be listed on the Supplement Facts Panel. This is true except when the manufacturer is using a “proprietary blend.” This means that they can say “proprietary blend” and list the ingredients in the blend but not the amounts of each ingredient. Generally, I like to know how much of an ingredient is in something I’m taking.
When looking at a dietary supplement and deciding whether to purchase the product, be sure to take a couple of minutes and look at the Supplement Facts Panel. If you don’t understand the Panel take a picture of it and the ingredient list and look them up to be sure they do what they claim and are safe including not interacting with any mediations you are taking. One of the best free places to investigate ingredients is the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS, a division of the National Institutes of Health). The ODS has a dietary supplement ingredient database you can use. They even have an app called MYDS (My Dietary Supplements) so you can check out supplements and their ingredients using your smart phone.
Dietary supplements are NOT food. They can improve your health or they can put you in danger. The best way to know the difference is to read and research the information on the Supplement Facts Panel.