By: Camryn Murray, Winthrop University Nutrition Student
Dietary supplements come in all shapes and sizes- pills, powders, liquids (oh my!) They usually have bold promises attached to them: they claim to lengthen your life, strengthen your skin, protect you from sickness, and more. It might be surprising, then, to learn that supplements and “nutraceuticals” are not regulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This means that they have the potential to be contaminated with heavy metals, bacteria, mold, and more.
Are supplements dangerous?
Most supplements are not dangerous, but it is important to speak with a medical doctor or registered dietitian before you begin taking a supplement. While they are considered “natural” alternatives, they could negatively interact with certain medications or medical conditions. A few examples include:
● Kava, the herb, can negatively impact the liver and can interact badly with anti-anxiety or anticonvulsant medications
● Some vitamins and minerals, like calcium, have upper limits. Calcium’s upper limit is 2,500 mg per day, and regularly consuming over the limit could increase your risk for several conditions, including kidney stones
● St. John’s Wort can interact with many medications, including essential drugs like the blood thinner called warfarin
Are supplements beneficial?
Supplements may or may not be beneficial, it all depends on the quality of the supplement and the amount of research that supports the supplement’s claims. Most dietitians prefer that their patients or clients practice a “food first” approach when it comes to nutrients. In some cases, taking a supplement is warranted or even necessary. Here are a few examples of supplements that could be beneficial:
● Psyllium fiber supplements can potentially treat constipation for someone who does not eat enough fiber and may also lower cholesterol levels
● Folic acid supplements can be crucial for pregnant women to prevent birth defects, like spina bifida, that happen because of folate deficiency
● Vitamin B12 supplements could help vegetarians or vegans consume an adequate amount of B12, since it is usually only present in animal products
Please note that it is always important to do research on a supplement’s potential side effects and to get the appropriate dose from a trusted resource.
How can I find a reputable supplement?
There are several companies that offer third-party testing to help with supplement regulation. They usually look for inaccurate ingredients, inconsistent dosage, heavy metals, mold, yeast, bacteria, or pesticides. A supplement should be held in a facility that follows current good manufacturing practices (CGMP) that are established by the FDA. Check supplements for third-party testing from the following organizations:
● National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) International
● U.S. Pharmacopia
● Informed Choice
Supplements are a great resource for those who need it- people with iron deficiency, pregnant women with increased nutrient needs, etcetera. Herbal supplements can also be delicious and beneficial when they are researched carefully, but detrimental when used improperly. The bottom line is that supplements should be taken seriously just like any other treatment would be and consumers should educate themselves on reputable brands and side effects.
Office of dietary supplements - dietary supplements: What you need to know. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/WYNTK-Consumer/. Published September 3, 2020. Accessed September 21, 2022.
Supplements: A scorecard. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/supplements-a-scorecard. Published September 20, 2021. Accessed September 23, 2022.
Carstensen AKand M, Rapaport L, Upham B, Landau MD, Colino S. 7 popular supplements with potential hidden risks. EverydayHealth.com. https://www.everydayhealth.com/news/supplements-risks-every-women-should-know/. Accessed September 22, 2022.
Hammond C. Third-party testing for supplements: Everything you need to know. Ultraverse Supplements. https://ultraversesupplements.com/third-party-testing-for-supplements. Published November 28, 2021. Accessed September 20, 2022.