Some people take a multivitamin or other supplement as a nutritional “insurance.” However, food should always be the first source of your vitamin and mineral intake, especially because they have many nutrients that a pill does not have. And pills cannot replace unhealthy eating.
The supplement and vitamin industry is huge and consists of pills, powders, tablets and capsules, as well as drinks and energy bars. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the federal agency that oversees dietary supplements in the United States. However, supplements don’t require review or approval by the FDA before they are put on the market.
Oversight and Effectiveness
Most supplements on the market exceed or don’t have enough of the ingredients they claim to have. Always check for a quality seal that shows an independent company has tested the product for quality and safety. There are a handful of independent companies that test certain brands to ensure their label accuracy and safety. The USP Dietary Supplement Verification Program  is a voluntary program open to manufacturers of dietary supplements.
NSF International  sets the standard that helps confirm that what’s on the label matches what’s in the bottle. Their testing also verifies that there are no unsafe levels of contaminants such as heavy metals, pesticides and herbicides in the product. Informed Choice is another voluntary program for sports nutrition supplements that tests for banned substances which could potentially affect professional athletes.
Through a testing and auditing process, the USP (United States Pharmacopeial Convention) evaluates voluntarily submitted products against science-based quality standards – including federally recognized standards and “FDA current good manufacturing practices,” states the USP, a nonprofit scientific organization.
The majority of vitamins, minerals or herbs in the market have not been studied well enough or not proven to be effective for health. Some can be effective if taken correctly and with a doctor or registered dietitian’s supervision, such as vitamin D and calcium for bone health; fish oil for heart health, and protein for muscle integrity.
Keep in mind that consuming too many vitamins and minerals, which is a risk of taking supplements, can be harmful for your health either from toxicity or food and drug interactions. Some probiotic or protein supplements for example, also contain a multivitamin profile, which if you are already taking one, could be excessive. Never forget that all whole foods contain the nutrients we need.
Should You Take Supplements?
Some people do not eat a variety of foods or balanced meals as part of their diets. Pregnant women, the elderly or vegans might be at an increased risk for deficiencies. If you suspect a deficiency or are just curious to see your status, it’s best to check with your doctor who can run specialized tests and help you decide if a specific supplement is right for you. A registered dietitian can also help check your diet for vitamin and mineral intake.
The top takeaways about supplements:
- Food should be the first and primary source of nutrients.
- Supplements should be taken as needed and with the guidance of a doctor or dietitian.
- Before taking any multivitamin or supplement, consider effectiveness, benefits and risks. Your doc or RD can help you decide.
- Always check for a quality seal since the FDA is not required to review or approve these products.
Carla Duenas is a registered dietitian with Community Health at Baptist Health South Florida.