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Supplements: Myths and Facts

“Would this supplement help me?” I often get asked some version of this question. It can be hard to figure out which supplement is the best. Here are some myths and facts about supplements that will help you find your best option.

Supplement Myth 1: Supplements are regulated the same way as medications.

Supplement Fact: Both medications and dietary supplements are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Unlike medications, however, companies manufacturing dietary supplements do not have to provide evidence of purity and quality to the FDA before their supplement hits the shelves. This can lead to harmful ingredients hiding in supplements. The FDA has the authority to stop companies from selling a supplement only after there is substantial evidence that the supplement causes harm. It can take years before a harmful supplement is taken off the market.

Even if they do not cause harm, supplements may not contain what is listed on their package. Recently, the New York attorney general’s office tested supplements from multiple stores to see if the supplement labels were accurate. Very few (4-41%) contained the herb listed on the label. Further, these supplements contained other plants, some of which are known to cause allergies, but they were not listed on the label as ingredients.

However, supplement companies may voluntarily send their supplements to US Pharmacopeia (USP). USP is an independent company that sets high standards for supplements. USP will test the supplement for quality, purity, potency, performance and consistency. If the supplement meets USP’s standards, then the company may use the USP Verified Mark on their product. You can find the USP Verified Mark on the supplement’s packaging if it has met the standards.

Supplement Myth 2: Supplements will cure a problem.

Supplement Fact: Supplements may be useful if you have a true nutrient deficiency. The best way to know if you are deficient is to talk with your doctor or a registered dietitian. If you are deficient in something, your doctor or dietitian can recommend a good supplement for you to take. You may even need a prescription for a medical dose of that nutrient.

Remember, a supplement cannot provide the same benefits as eating nutrient-rich foods like fruits and vegetables.

Supplement Myth 3: Supplements are safe for everyone.

Supplement Fact: Most supplements are not well-tested for pregnant or nursing women, or for children. These groups should be especially careful with supplements.

For all ages and life stages, there are upper limits to how much of specific vitamins and minerals the body can safely handle. It is very important to make sure we don’t take more of any vitamin or mineral than is safe. For more information on upper limits, talk to your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian.

Also, some supplements interfere or interact with medications, which can harm you. It is always important to let your doctor and other healthcare providers know about everything you take, including all medications, supplements and herbals.

If you want unbiased information about the effects of different herbs and supplements, you can find it at the National Institute of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website: nccih.nih.gov. Click on Health Topics A-Z to search for types of supplements by name.

The bottom line is that it is important to be a smart consumer, especially when it comes to supplements. Talk to a doctor, registered dietitian or pharmacist for more information about what is best for you. 

Lynn Grant R.D., L.D., CDE is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator. She works at Capital Region Medical Center and provides diabetes education and outpatient nutrition counseling by appointment.