4.4 Supplements and Foods for Health and Well-Being

Dietary Supplements

What is a dietary supplement?

As defined by Congress in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Actexternal link disclaimer, which became law in 1994, a dietary supplement is a product (other than tobacco) that

  • is intended to supplement the diet;
  • contains one or more dietary ingredients (including vitamins; minerals; herbs or other botanicals; amino acids; and other substances) or their constituents;
  • is intended to be taken by mouth as a pill, capsule, tablet, or liquid; and
  • is labeled on the front panel as being a dietary supplement.

What is a new dietary ingredient?

new dietary ingredient is a dietary ingredient that was not sold in the United States in a dietary supplement before October 15, 1994. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires specific safety informationexternal link disclaimer from a manufacturer intending to market a dietary supplement containing a new dietary ingredient. This information is not required for older dietary supplement ingredients.

Are dietary supplements different from foods and drugs?

Although dietary supplements are regulated by the FDA as foods, they are regulated differently from other foods and from drugs. Whether a product is classified as a dietary supplement, conventional food, or drug is based on its intended use. Most often, classification as a dietary supplement is determined by the information that the manufacturer provides on the product label or in accompanying literature, although many foods and dietary supplement product labels do not include this information.

What claims can manufacturers make for dietary supplements and drugs?

The types of claims that can be made on the labels of dietary supplements and drugs differ. Drug manufacturers may claim that their product will diagnose, cure, mitigate, treat, or prevent a disease. Such claims may not legally be made for dietary supplements.

The label of a dietary supplement or food product may contain one of three types of claimsexternal link disclaimer: a health claim, nutrient content claim, or structure/function claim. Health claims describe a relationship between a food, food component, or dietary supplement ingredient, and reducing the risk of a disease or health-related condition. Nutrient content claims describe the relative amount of a nutrient or dietary substance in a product. A structure/function claim is a statement describing how a product may affect the organs or systems of the body and it can not mention any specific disease. Structure/function claims do not require FDA approval but the manufacturer must provide FDA with the text of the claim within 30 days of putting the product on the marketexternal link disclaimer. Product labels containing such claims must also include a disclaimer that reads, “This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”

How does FDA regulate dietary supplements?

In addition to regulating label claims, FDA regulates dietary supplements in other ways. Supplement ingredients sold in the United States before October 15, 1994, are not required to be reviewed by FDA for their safety before they are marketed because they are presumed to be safe based on their history of use by humans. For a new dietary ingredient (one not sold as a dietary supplement before 1994) the manufacturer must notify FDA of its intent to market a dietary supplement containing the new dietary ingredient and provide information on how it determined that reasonable evidence exists for safe human use of the product. FDA can either refuse to allow new ingredients into or remove existing ingredients from the marketplace for safety reasons.

Unlike drug products, there are no provisions in the law for FDA to “approve” dietary supplements for safety or effectiveness before they reach the consumer. Once a dietary supplement is marketed, FDA has to prove that the product is not safe in order to restrict its use or remove it from the market. In contrast, before being allowed to market a drug product, manufacturers must obtain FDA approval by providing convincing evidence that it is both safe and effective.

The label of a dietary supplement product is required to be truthful and not misleading. If the label does not meet this requirement, FDA may remove the product from the marketplace or take other appropriate actions.

What information is required on a dietary supplement label?

FDA requires that certain information appears on the dietary supplement label:

General information

  • Name of product (including the word “supplement” or a statement that the product is a supplement)
  • Net quantity of contents
  • Name and place of business of manufacturer, packer, or distributor
  • Directions for use

Supplement Facts panel

  • Serving size, list of dietary ingredients, amount per serving size (by weight), percent of Daily Value (%DV), if established
  • If the dietary ingredient is a botanical, the scientific name of the plant or the common or usual name standardized in the reference Herbs of Commerce (1992 edition) and the name of the plant part used
  • If the dietary ingredient is a proprietary blend (i.e., a blend exclusive to the manufacturer), the total weight of the blend and the components of the blend in order of predominance by weight

Other ingredients

  • Nondietary ingredients such as fillers, artificial colors, sweeteners, flavors, or binders; listed by weight in descending order of predominance and by common name or proprietary blend

The label of the supplement may contain a cautionary statement but the lack of a cautionary statement does not mean that no adverse effects are associated with the product.

Does a label indicate the quality of a dietary supplement product?

It is difficult to determine the quality of a dietary supplement product from its label. The degree of quality control depends on the manufacturer, the supplier, and others in the production process.

In 2007, the FDA issued Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) for dietary supplements, a set of requirements and expectations by which dietary supplements must be manufactured, prepared, and stored to ensure quality. Manufacturers are now expected to guarantee the identity, purity, strength, and composition of their dietary supplements. For example, the GMPs aim to prevent the inclusion of the wrong ingredients, the addition of too much or too little of a dietary ingredient, the possibility of contamination (by pesticides, heavy metals such as lead, bacteria, etc.), and the improper packaging and labeling of a product.

Are dietary supplements standardized?

Standardization is a process that manufacturers may use to ensure batch-to-batch consistency of their products. In some cases, standardization involves identifying specific chemicals (known as markers) that can be used to manufacture a consistent product. The standardization process can also provide a measure of quality control.

Dietary supplements are not required to be standardized in the United States. In fact, no legal or regulatory definition exists in the United States for standardization as it applies to dietary supplements. Because of this, the term “standardization” may mean many different things. Some manufacturers use the term standardization incorrectly to refer to uniform manufacturing practices; following a recipe is not sufficient for a product to be called standardized. Therefore, the presence of the word “standardized” on a supplement label does not necessarily indicate product quality.

What methods are used to evaluate the health benefits and safety of a dietary supplement?

Dietary supplements are not required by federal law to be tested for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed, so the amount of scientific evidence available for various supplement ingredients varies widely. Some ingredients in dietary supplements have been carefully evaluated. For example, scientists know that calcium and vitamin D are important for keeping bones strong and reducing bone loss. Other supplements, such as many herbal products, need more study to determine their value.

Scientists can use several approaches to evaluate dietary supplements for their potential health benefits and risks. They may investigate the history of use, conduct laboratory studies using cell or tissue cultures, and experiment with animals. Studies on people (e.g., individual case reports, observational studies, and clinical trials) provide the most direct evidence of a dietary supplement’s effects on health and patterns of use.

Botanical Dietary Supplements

What is a botanical?

A botanical is a plant or plant part valued for its medicinal or therapeutic properties, flavor, and/or scent. Herbs are a subset of botanicals. Products made from botanicals that are used to maintain or improve health may be called herbal products, botanical products, or phytomedicines.

In naming botanicals, botanists use a Latin name made up of the genus and species of the plant. Under this system, the botanical black cohosh is known as Actaea racemosa L., where “L” stands for Linnaeus, who first described the type of plant specimen. In the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) fact sheets, we do not include such initials because they do not appear on most products used by consumers.

Can botanicals be dietary supplements?

To be classified as a dietary supplement, a botanical must meet the definition given below. Many botanical preparations meet the definition.

As defined by Congress in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which became law in 1994, a dietary supplement is a product (other than tobacco) that

  • is intended to supplement the diet;
  • contains one or more dietary ingredients (including vitamins; minerals; herbs or other botanicals; amino acids; and other substances) or their constituents;
  • is intended to be taken by mouth as a pill, capsule, tablet, or liquid; and
  • is labeled on the front panel as being a dietary supplement.

How are botanicals commonly sold and prepared?

Botanicals are sold in many forms: as fresh or dried products; liquid or solid extracts; tablets, capsules, powders; tea bags; and other forms. For example, fresh ginger root is often found in the produce section of food stores; the dried ginger root is sold packaged in tea bags, capsules, or tablets; and liquid preparations made from the ginger root are also sold. A particular group of chemicals or a single chemical may be isolated from a botanical and sold as a dietary supplement, usually in tablet or capsule form. An example is phytoestrogens from soy products.

Common preparations include teas, decoctions, tinctures, and extracts:

  • tea, also known as an infusion, is made by adding boiling water to fresh or dried botanicals and steeping them. The tea may be drunk either hot or cold.
  • Some roots, bark, and berries require more forceful treatment to extract their desired ingredients. They are simmered in boiling water for longer periods than teas, making a decoction, which also may be drunk hot or cold.
  • tincture is made by soaking a botanical in a solution of alcohol and water. Tinctures are sold as liquids and are used for concentrating and preserving a botanical. They are made in different strengths that are expressed as botanical-to-extract ratios (i.e., ratios of the weight of the dried botanical to the volume or weight of the finished product).
  • An extract is made by soaking the botanicals in a liquid that removes specific types of chemicals. The liquid can be used as-is or evaporated to make a dry extract for use in capsules or tablets.

Are botanical dietary supplements standardized?

Standardization is a process that manufacturers may use to ensure batch-to-batch consistency of their products. In some cases, standardization involves identifying specific chemicals (also known as markers) that can be used to manufacture a consistent product. The standardization process can also provide a measure of quality control.

Dietary supplements are not required to be standardized in the United States. In fact, no legal or regulatory definition exists for standardization in the United States as it applies to botanical dietary supplements. Because of this, the term “standardization” may mean many different things. Some manufacturers use the term standardization incorrectly to refer to uniform manufacturing practices; following a recipe is not sufficient for a product to be called standardized. Therefore, the presence of the word “standardized” on a supplement label does not necessarily indicate product quality.

Ideally, the chemical markers chosen for standardization would also be the constituents that are responsible for a botanical’s effect in the body. In this way, each lot of the product would have a consistent health effect. However, the components responsible for the effects of most botanicals have not been identified or clearly defined. For example, the sennosides in the botanical senna are known to be responsible for the laxative effect of the plant, but many compounds may be responsible for valerian’s relaxing effect.

Are botanical dietary supplements safe?

Many people believe that products labeled “natural” are safe and good for them. This is not necessarily true because the safety of a botanical depends on many things, such as its chemical makeup, how it works in the body, how it is prepared, and the dose used.

The action of botanicals ranges from mild to powerful (potent). A botanical with mild action may have subtle effects. Chamomile and peppermint, both mild botanicals, are usually taken as teas to aid digestion and are generally considered safe for self-administration. Some mild botanicals may have to be taken for weeks or months before their full effects are achieved. For example, Valerian may be effective as a sleep aid after 14 days of use but it is rarely effective after just one dose. In contrast, a powerful botanical produces a fast result. Kava, as one example, is reported to have an immediate and powerful action affecting anxiety and muscle relaxation.

The dose and form of a botanical preparation also play important roles in its safety. Teas, tinctures, and extracts have different strengths. The same amount of a botanical may be contained in a cup of tea, a few teaspoons of tincture, or an even smaller quantity of an extract. Also, different preparations vary in the relative amounts and concentrations of chemical removed from the whole botanical. For example, peppermint tea is generally considered safe to drink but peppermint oil is much more concentrated and can be toxic if used incorrectly. It is important to follow the manufacturer’s suggested directions for using a botanical and not exceed the recommended dose without the advice of a healthcare provider.

Does a label indicate the quality of a botanical dietary supplement product?

It is difficult to determine the quality of a botanical dietary supplement product from its label. The degree of quality control depends on the manufacturer, the supplier, and others in the production process.

In 2007, the FDA issued Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) for dietary supplements, a set of requirements and expectations by which dietary supplements must be manufactured, prepared, and stored to ensure quality. Manufacturers are now expected to guarantee the identity, purity, strength, and composition of their dietary supplements. For example, the GMPs aim to prevent the inclusion of the wrong ingredients, the addition of too much or too little of a dietary ingredient, the possibility of contamination (by pesticides, heavy metals such as lead, bacteria, etc.), and the improper packaging and labeling of a product.

What methods are used to evaluate the health benefits and safety of a botanical dietary supplement?

Like other dietary supplements, botanicals are not required by federal law to be tested for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed, so the amount of scientific evidence available for various botanical ingredients varies widely. Some botanicals have been evaluated in scientific studies. For example, research shows that St. John’s wort may be useful for short-term treatment of mild to moderate depression. Other botanical dietary supplements need more study to determine their value.

Scientists can use several approaches to evaluate botanical dietary supplements for their potential health benefits and risks. They may investigate the history of use, conduct laboratory studies using cell or tissue cultures, and experiment with animals. Studies on people (e.g., individual case reports, observational studies, and clinical trials) provide the most direct evidence of a botanical supplement’s effects on health and patterns of use.

To learn more about a specific dietary supplement try the Dietary Supplements Fact Sheet catalog.  

 

Websites on the origins on plant based medicine and a source a collection of articles on “Green Medicine.”

Plant Parts Used for Medicinal Purposes (USDA Forest Service) – https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/ethnobotany/medicinal/parts.shtml

Active Plant Ingredients Used for Medicinal Purposes (USDA Forest Service) – https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/ethnobotany/medicinal/ingredients.shtml

http://www.greenmedinfo.com/research-dashboard – This is a collection of articles for those who are into natural health ideas

 

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Drugs, Health & Behavior by Jacqueline Schwab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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