Shopping for Dietary Supplements: Understanding Safety Concerns

supplements It used to be that food was food and drugs were drugs. Nowadays, it is not always easy to tell them apart. Consumers are faced with a great variety of products—falling somewhere between medication and food—promoted as medical treatments and as part of a well-balanced diet. Welcome to the ambiguous world of dietary supplements. The word "dietary" may lead people to believe such supplements are as safe as the foods we eat. While this is often the case, many of them have health effects—and side effects—comparable to medications. However, since dietary supplements are not as strictly regulated, like drugs, consumers need to be watchful and well-informed about purchasing these products.

The Nature of Dietary Supplements

Dietary supplements are edible products that contain one or more substances—usually natural—formulated to achieve a specific health effect. Three main groups of dietary supplements are:
  • Nutritional supplements —These provide nutrients that are naturally present in food and have well-established health-related functions. These nutrients are isolated from foods and often provided at much higher concentrations. Examples include:
    • Amino acids
    • Fatty acids
    • High-dose vitamins and minerals
  • Botanical supplements —These are herbal products containing concentrates or extracts from plants, such as:
  • Miscellaneous supplements —These include a variety of non-herbal substances from many sources not normally found in the diet, but purported to have beneficial health effects. Examples include:

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