Get Supplement Savvy

March 21, 2017

Get Supplement Savvy

Your sister raves about the benefits of echinacea. You see ads for ginkgo biloba. Supplements seem to be in fashion these days. But perhaps you are puzzled when you walk down the supplement aisle in your drugstore. Many people are.

Whether you're a member of a consumer-directed health plan such as a medical savings account or you have more traditional health insurance, it's important to know as much about your health care as you can. In order to help consumers make wise decisions and understand health claims, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set labeling guidelines. Read on to learn how to navigate the labels.

Drugs vs. Supplements

A supplement has the words "dietary supplement" on its label. The main difference between drugs and supplements is that drugs can treat or prevent disease. Supplements can't and can't claim to. A supplement is something you take by mouth. It must have an ingredient that is considered dietary. Examples of these ingredients are vitamins, herbs and minerals.

Supplements are tested for safety, but they do not undergo the same rigorous FDA review that new drugs do. This means that only supplement makers themselves are responsible for ensuring safety. So you must choose carefully.

What Do the Labels Mean?

Manufacturers often use health claims to sell a product. Some products can help you stay healthy; others can't. How do you know when to believe what you read? The FDA allows makers of supplements to make three types of claims. A company must meet standards to make a nutrient content claim, health claim, or structure/function claim.

Nutrient-content claims state how much of a nutrient is in a supplement or food. For example, a product that has at least 200 mg of calcium per serving could put "high in calcium" on its label. You often see this on a carton of fortified orange juice.

Health claims can be used if there is scientific evidence that a certain ingredient can be linked to reducing risk of a disease or condition. A label stating "Taking folic acid during pregnancy can help reduce birth defects" is a good example of this kind of claim. Always keep in mind that supplements can't treat or prevent a disease.

A structure-function claim describes the effect of a nutrient on the body's structure or function. "Calcium builds strong bones" is one example. Such claims do not need FDA authorization but the manufacturer must notify the FDA within 30 days of the product being put on the market. The label must also state: "This statement has not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease."

Spotting Fraud

Ask yourself the following questions about the label. If you answer yes to any of them, consider putting the supplement back on the shelf.

  • Does it claim to treat or prevent a disease (for instance, arthritis or cancer)?

  • Does it claim to cure a wide range of unrelated diseases?

  • Does it claim to have only benefits and no side effects?

  • Does it use wording such as "miracle cure" or "breakthrough"?

  • Does it use vague claims such as "purify," "detoxify," "energize" or "guaranteed results"?

At best, these types of products are a waste of money. At worst, they could harm your health.

One way to identify a quality product is to look at who makes it. Nationally known food and drug producers are more likely to have tight quality controls. Also, look for the USP (United States Pharmacopoeia) notation. This means that the maker followed USP standards. Finally, ask your doctor. Some supplements can interfere with certain drugs or medical treatments.


March 21, 2017

Reviewed By:  

Laura FiveashLaura Fiveash DrPH MPH RD