What Are Dietary Supplements ?

Pills, tablets, all containing dietary supplements in whiite pots on a white background.
Photo by YaiSirichai c/o FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Dietary supplements are products taken by mouth that contain all sorts of dietary ingredients. These can be minerals and vitamins, amino acids, enzymes and herbs. They are intended to provide nutritional benefits or  psychological effects to the consumer of these products (EFSA, 2018; FDA, 2018a). 

The description and regulation of dietary supplements is nowadays tightly monitored and regulated. Two major bodies, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the USA’s Food And Drug Administration are intimately involved in such regulation.

The FDA states that dietary supplements are so called to increase, to complement and to supplement nutrients that are not provided for by regular food intake. They cannot be used for the treatment of any disease (FDA, 2018b).

Quite often food supplements contain ingredients that help to preserve health in a general sense. They can also enhance the effects of various therapeutic products where specific health disorders are concerned (Rawson et al., 2018). In many cases the regulatory authorities will establish claims that can be made for individual and groups of ingredients as a way of ensuring the public understand the efficacy of a particular ingredient in a product and avoid fraudulent claims where these are sometimes made. 

Throughout the food supplements world, there are various ingredients which now have established claims based on solid, human clinical evidence gathered through research-specific studies. Typical ingredients include glucosamine (Jerosch, 2011), caffeine, chondroitin (Jerosch, 2011), hyaluronic acid, omega-3 fatty acids, curcumin and turmeric,  resveratrol, polyphenols and various polyphenolic acids (do Carmo et al., 2018), vitamins including vitamin C or vitamin D3 and so on. All these may be real and proper or viable alternatives to established medicines and other pharmacological agents. 

Throughout the USA for example, about 75% of all adults take dietary supplements in one form or another to help them achieve and maintain a healthy life style (Dickinson & MacKay, 2014). They are also taken to prevent or ameliorate the impact of various acute, chronic and degenerative diseases before relying on other forms of intervention such as taking medicines.

In many cases dietary supplements are taken to help improve performance in sports, or to help with a particular physiological situation such as mental concentration, sleep, pregnancy


Dickinson, A., & MacKay, D. (2014). Health habits and other characteristics of dietary supplement users: A reviewNutrition Journal, 1314https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2891-13-14

do Carmo, M. A.Girotto, C.Marques, M. J.Granato, D., & Azevedo, L. (2018). Polyphenols as potential antiproliferative agents: Scientific trendsCurrent Opinion in Food Science24,  pp. 2635https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cofs.2018.10.013

EFSA. (2018). Food Supplements. Accessed 06/03/2019  from http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/topics/topic/food-supplements

FDA. (2018a,. 11/20/2018). Dietary Supplement Products & Ingredients. Accessed 06/03/2019 https://www.fda.gov/Food/DietarySupplements/ProductsIngredients/default.htm

FDA. (2018b). Questions and Answers on Dietary Supplements. Accessed 06/03/2019 from https://www.fda.gov/food/dietarysupplements/usingdietarysupplements/ucm480069.htm

Jerosch, J. (2011). Effects of glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate on cartilage metabolism in OA: Outlook on other nutrient partners especially omega‐3 fatty acidsInternational Journal of Rheumatology, 2011969012https://doi.org/10.1155/2011/969012

Rawson, E. S.Miles, M. P., & Larson‐Meyer, D. E. (2018). Dietary supplements for health, adaptation, and recovery in athletesInternational Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism28(2), pp. 188 – 199https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2017-0340

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