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Dietary supplements are products that people add to their diets. According to U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “they include vitamins, minerals, herbs, and amino acids. They can be pills, liquids, or powders. By law, companies that make these products cannot claim they prevent, treat, or cure disease. For example, a product cannot claim that it can 'cure cancer' or 'help you lose weight.'" We are also warned in ways like “Don't take supplements instead of eating healthy foods or prescription drugs… If you are having surgery, taking other supplements or medicines, or have health problems dietary supplements may be harmful.”
So, there are questions we need to ask before taking any supplements. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements has these advices:
NIH ODS also points out that "The term 'natural' doesn't always mean safe. A supplement's safety depends on many things, such as its chemical makeup, how it works in the body, how it is prepared, and the dose used. Certain herbs (for example, comfrey and kava) can harm the liver.
In the face of aggressive marketing and the unfound claims touted by the supplement manufacturers, it takes effort to be an informed consumer. For example, agave nectar is often promoted as a healthier option than sugar and most effective for weight loss. However, Mayo Clinic’s article on “Artificial Sweeteners” finds that “these so-called natural sweetners often undergo processing and refining, including agave nectar," and "products sweetened with natural sweeteners may not help since they add the same amount of calories to your diet as table sugar."
Well, how are supplements regulated? In its website, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that “Federal law does not require dietary supplements to be proven safe to FDA's satisfaction before they are marketed;” and “For most claims made in the labeling of dietary supplements, the law does not require the manufacturer or seller to prove to FDA's satisfaction that the claim is accurate or truthful before it appears on the product.” It also suggests that you consult with a health care professional before using any dietary supplement, as well as shows you how to be a safe and informed consumer.
For making decisions, we may return to NIH ODS for “reliable information about the use, effectiveness, safety, and quality of diatary supplements." It includes fact sheets answers to common questions, and tips to help you choose dietary supplements. In addition, it shows you the steps in order to evaluate information on the Internet.
Last, but not least, Medlineplus features two excellent sections for us: one on Dietary Supplements with overview, news, specific conditions and more; and the other on Herbs and Supplements. Beyond all this, Medlineplus has a video: Evaluating Internet Health Information: A Tutorial which is well done and quite enjoyable. Have fun watch the video!
Image Courtesy: NIH Office of Dietary Supplement.