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What Is a Dietary Supplement?

According to the Council of Responsible Nutrition, 77% of American adults took dietary supplements in 2019.

Dietary supplements have become a part of our daily life, filling in the gaps in our daily nutrition that our normal diet may lack. They’ve become a staple of the American kitchen counter. Grand View Research reports that the global dietary supplements market is projected to reach $230 billion by 2027. But what is a supplement? 

According to the FDA, a dietary supplement is a product that includes such ingredients as vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, and enzymes. They come in forms such as tablets, capsules, soft gels, gelcaps, powders, and liquids.

Supplements are not meant to replace complete meals. As their name suggests, supplements are meant to “supplement” a healthy diet. They provide nutrients and other ingredients extracted from food sources or synthetically made.

The safety of dietary supplements.

As per FDA guidelines, supplements are not permitted to be marketed for the purpose of treating, diagnosing, preventing, or curing diseases. On the other hand, drugs are permitted for these uses if reviewed appropriately and approved by the FDA.

Ensuring the safety and efficacy of a supplement product is left to the discretion of the manufacturer. Companies like ChromaDex hold quality to high standards, ensuring their facilities meet cGMP (Current Good Manufacturing Practice) regulations.

Although the FDA does not approve dietary supplement products, any supplement that contains a new dietary ingredient (an active ingredient introduced to the market after October, 1994) must be notified to the FDA prior to market launch. 

At any time, the FDA has the power to remove a product from the market if the product is found to be unsafe.

Types of dietary supplements:

Vitamins

Vitamins are organic compounds your body needs in small quantities. 

Vitamins are essential because the human body cannot produce an adequate amount needed for sustainable function. Certain vitamins are not produced by the body at all and are solely dependent on the intake of your diet. 

For example, while your body is able to create vitamin D through the exposure of sunlight, it is unable to create vitamin C and relies solely on your food intake. 

However, the deficiencies of either vitamin can lead to serious ailments like loss of bone density or scurvy. 

There are currently 13 recognized vitamins and they are classified as either fat-soluble or water-soluble. 

Fat-soluble vitamins, like vitamins A, D, E, and K, are easily stored in the body because of their ability to be stored in the fatty tissues of the body. Your body can hold these vitamin reserves for days or weeks at a time, making good use of your food when ingested.

Water-soluble vitamins, like vitamin C and all the B vitamins, require constant intake due to their inability to be stored in the body for long periods of time. Your body quite inefficiently excretes these vitamins in urine, if not readily used. Therefore, the maintenance of these vitamins of the body requires a little more attention when considering your food choices.

For example, the vitamin B3 family, niacin, nicotinamide, and nicotinamide riboside, are all water-soluble, meaning they need daily consistent replenishment to meet your body’s required vitamin B3 intake. 

Minerals

Minerals are inorganic substances that your body requires for daily function. Minerals in your diet are essential to the body for things like bone health, muscle contraction, nerve function and controlling body fluids.

Unlike some vitamins, minerals cannot be created in the body at all. Minerals rely solely on your diet to obtain adequate amounts. The five major minerals your body requires for good health are calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, and magnesium.

All other minerals are considered “trace minerals”, meaning that your body only requires a small amount of them. “Trace minerals” include iron, manganese, copper, iodine, zinc, cobalt, fluoride, and selenium.

Herbs

Herbs, also known as botanicals, have a long history for their medicinal use in ancient civilizations as far back as 5000 BCE. Traditional Chinese medicine still uses herbs as part of its practice today.

In the Western market, herbs fall within the dietary supplement category instead of standard medicine. 

As with any other supplement, herbal dietary supplements cannot claim to be a treatment for a disease or illness under the eyes of the FDA.

By definition, the term herb refers to a herbaceous plant, characterized by the lack of a woody stem and often grown low to the ground. However, there have been several exceptions to this categorization when it comes to the expansive use of herbal supplements.

Some examples of how herbal dietary supplements are used:

  • Ginseng to help manage stress, support the immune system, reduce fatigue.

  • Chamomile to help improve sleep quality and support relaxation.

  • Cinnamon to help with appetite and blood sugar maintenance.

  • Ginkgo Biloba to help support blood circulation.

Amino Acids

Amino acids are organic compounds that are vital building blocks of proteins. Your body needs 20 different kinds of amino acids for proper functioning. 

Nine of these 20 are essential amino acids because they cannot be made in the body and can only be obtained through diet. These nine essential amino acids are as follows: histidine, isoleucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. 

The best sources of essential amino acids come from complete proteins like meat, dairy products, soy, and other plant-based sources, such as quinoa, buckwheat, beans, and nuts.

Amino acids are largely recognized for their role in muscle development and repair but they have several other important functions such as building antibodies, hormones and enzymes.

Enzymes

Enzymes are proteins that function as a biological catalyst, meaning that they are responsible for chemically mobilizing or accelerating chemical reactions in the body. 

Supplemental enzymes largely fall into one of two categories: digestive or systemic. 

Most people are familiar with digestive enzymes supplements that help with food digestion like lactase (used to break down milk sugar), often found in Lactaid® products. 

Systemic enzymes work in the body to help support the immune system and support inflammatory processes. One of the functions of systemic enzymes is breaking down excess fibrin, a protein involved in the clotting of blood.

Supplement categorizations are not a perfect system.

There are plenty of dietary supplement products available that don’t fit neatly into these categories, namely fatty acids or probiotics. 

Some products lie within a subsect that overlaps these categories, like metabolites. Metabolites are usually used to describe small molecules that lie within the intermediate or end product of cellular metabolism. They function as fuel, structure, signaling, or stimulatory and inhibitory effects on enzymes. 

Nicotinamide riboside is an example of a metabolite.

Supplements range in quality and proof.

The wide-range of dietary supplements on the market is overwhelming but it’s important to stay vigilant of ingredient claims, safety, and efficacy. 

Some ingredients like vitamin C have decades of scientific research to bolster their claims. However, the mass number of supplements also creates a muddled climate of varying degrees of quality and claim strength.  

Before taking in everything you read as absolute truth, it’s important to exercise an extra level of scrutiny to check for irregularities behind a supplement and the company behind it. A good place to start is reviewing the merit behind a supplement’s clinical trials.

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