Most of us have taken a multivitamin but in America, dietary supplements refer to a variety of semi-related nutritional compounds such as herbs, minerals, amino acids, enzymes, some hormones, and phytonutrients as well as byproducts of metabolism. Supplements are really called supplements because they are meant to supplement or complement a person's daily, healthy diet.
What are Supplements?
As mentioned above, phytonutrients are also labeled as supplements. These are sometimes referred to as phytochemicals (phyto means plant). Examples of phytonutrients include lycopene beta carotene, lutein, and many others.
Supplements that are supposed to help people become bigger, stronger or faster are grouped into a special class of called ergogenic aids. Most people have probably heard of creatine because it is arguably the best known ergogenic aid.
So, how did so many different compounds come to be known as supplements? In my opinion, things really started to change in the late 1980s when newspapers started reporting on a rare and mysterious blood disorder called eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS).
All of the people who had this illness seemed to have one thing in common they were all using the amino acid, tryptophan, which was a popular natural alternative to sleeping pills.
Tryptophan is covered to the brain chemical, serotonin, which calms us down, producing a feeling of “serenity” (get it, serotonin =serenity)
In the end, 37 people died from the disease. While a tainted batch of tryptophan manufactured in Japan was linked to the EMS outbreak, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also noted that the disease occurred in people who used tryptophan which did not originate in Japan.
In response to beliefs that the government would soon regulate supplements -requiring a prescription from a doctor – free pamphlets were distributed at health food stores around the country to alert people of the danger.
I distinctly remember vitamin stores that had petitions next to the cash register, which people could sign, opposing the alleged government interventions.
These actions, along with government statistics showing that a majority of Americans regularly took dietary supplements (multivitamins being the most common), were ultimately responsible for the passage of a piece of legislation that would revolutionize everything-the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 -called DSHEA for short.
Under DSHEA, nutritional supplements are classified as foods, not drugs and prevented strict government regulations. According to DSHEA (pronounced “Dee-Shay”), the official definition of supplements is as follows:
1. a product (other than tobacco) intended to supplement the diet that bears or contains one or more of the following dietary ingredients: a vitamin, mineral, amino acid, herb or other botanical
2. a dietary substance used to supplement the diet by increasing the total dietary intake
3. a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, extract, or combination of any ingredient described above AND
intended for ingestion in the form of a capsule, powder, soft gel, or gelcap, and not represented as a conventional food or as a sole item of a meal or the diet
4. is labeled a “dietary supplement.”
This wordy definition essentially allows for a wide variety of substances to be listed as supplements. For example, byproducts (metabolites) created during the normal metabolism of amino acids, vitamins, minerals, etc. can be defined as a supplement.
Under the current US laws, neither the FDA or any other government agency check supplements to make sure that they are safe -or that they contain what their labels say they contain. In other words, supplement companies are basically on the honor system. We have to take their word that the product contains what they are supposed to contain.
Likewise, supplement companies do not have to tell the FDA when they bring a new product to the market as long as the supplement contains ingredients that have been in the food supply for at least 50 years. When something has been around and has been consumed for at least 50 years, it attains a status called “Generally Recognized as Save” – GRAS.
While most supplements do contain what they are supposed to, unfortunately, some unscrupulous fly by night companies have been cited by the FDA for putting in other products -including prescription drugs to boost the effectiveness of the supplement. In my opinion, there is no more of a worse case of the situation than in supplements designed to enhance male performance. The FDA has sent warning letters to many supplement companies where supplements with Viagra or similar compounds like Levitra or Cialis
Because of this, I advise people to only buy supplements that come from a well-known company that has a reputation to uphold. On my site, Supplement Clarity website check companies against what the Better Business Bureau says about them and even show people what the companies look like. This gives you a better idea of who you are doing business with.
Does the Government regulate supplements?
Actually there is some regulation of dietary supplements. DSHEA, which I reviewed above is a regulation. Under DSHEA companies that make supplements cannot say that a supplement cures or treats any disease or condition. For example, no supplement can make the claim that it treats prostate cancer. What they are allowed to do however is make what are called “structure-function claims.” A structure/function claim has to do with how the supplement is used or appears to be used in the body.
For example, while a company can't say that a product treats breast cancer, they can say “supports breast health.” Structure, function claims require a LOT less proof than an actual disease claim like what you would see on a drug. You can easily spot Structure-Function Claims by looking for the buzz words like Aids, Maintains or Supports. Other smart sounding phrases that likewise are mostly smart-sounding marketing words include Clinically Proven and Emerging Research Suggests.
Any supplement questions?
Where would I look to find the company reviews?
Joe Cannon says
Katherine, while Im not aware of anyone who does supplement company reviews, one website that tests supplements – to see if they really have what they are supposed to – is ConsumerLab.com