Are Dietary Supplements Safe? Examining the Benefits of Supplements

According to our global survey with the Council for Responsible Nutrition, about 64 percent of people take vitamins, minerals, and other supplements to support their health. Seventy-seven percent said they would like to learn more about the benefits of dietary supplements, while others had questions related to their safety and efficacy.

In the study, respondents cited a few reasons why they didn’t incorporate any supplements into their diets: 20 percent believed that supplements didn’t work, while 16 percent didn’t believe they were safe.

When it comes to finding accurate nutrition information, consumers may feel overwhelmed, especially online. As a medical doctor, I want to demystify any misconceptions around dietary supplements, so consumers can make informed, educated decisions for their health and wellness.

Are Supplements Really Necessary?

Over the years, people have asked me questions such as “Why do we need to take supplements?” or “Are supplements worth it?”

Ideally, we would get all the nutrients from the foods we eat. The keyword here is “ideally” because few individuals truly get the right amounts of macronutrients, micronutrients, and phytonutrients in our meals every day. In our busy modern lives, we are constantly running from point A to point B and grabbing meals along the way. When our bodies do not get sufficient calories from food, the brain signals hunger, and our stomachs may growl.

But while our brain does a good job at signaling a hunger response, it does not tell us if we’re missing specific nutrients that our bodies need to function optimally. We call this “hidden hunger” or micronutrient deficiencies, which afflicts one in three people globally.

To help individuals meet their nutritional needs, health experts have relied on a supplements approach. For example, in certain populations, babies and young children may be given vitamin A supplements, while women of childbearing age are given folic acid supplements. Hidden hunger also disproportionately affects aging populations.

Generally, women are encouraged to increase their intake of vitamin D and B12 as they age, and athletes are recommended to consume more calcium and B vitamins.

Supplements can also offer many functional benefits. For example, when I go running, I take a supplement that boosts my body’s production of nitric oxide to support blood flow and performance. I also take fiber supplements because I don’t always consume adequate amounts from fruits and vegetables every day.

Since our nutritional needs can vary from person to person, we recommend consulting with a health care provider well-versed in nutrition science. According to our global survey, about 27 percent receive information about dietary supplements from their doctors.

Are Supplements Safe?

When we talk about supplements, we lump together a broad array of nutrients taken to support health, so it’s nearly impossible to answer such a broad question without a broad answer. Yes – generally, supplements are safe.

There are many variables involved, such as the type of supplement, your personal needs, and the quality standards of the manufacturer. Let’s discuss these more in detail.

science of supplements

Understanding Minimum Requirements and Upper Limits

First, let’s evaluate the type of supplement. Some supplements are focused on supporting the healthy intake of essential nutrients. These include vitamins, minerals, and even fats and amino acids that your body does not make but requires for healthy function.

These supplements often have established minimum daily requirements and known upper limits based on an understanding of possible side effects. So, it would depend on how much of that supplement you are taking in relation to all of your other sources of nutrients during the day.

Around the world, countries have health ministries that maintain guidelines for people to meet daily nutrient requirements. In the United States, for example, we have Recommend Dietary Allowances, or RDAs, which the Food and Nutrition Board determines at the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. These recommendations vary by age, gender, and life stage.

Health experts also determine the tolerable upper intake levels (UL) of nutrients to ensure supplement amounts do not pose risks to consumers.

Because nutrition is complex and personal, we encourage you to speak with your health care provider before supplementing or making changes to your diet. Your health care provider can advise if you need specific supplements for any medical conditions or to correct any deficiencies. Always let your provider know of all supplements you are taking, as some may interfere with medications. It is also important to follow instructions on the product label for recommended intakes.

What Should You Know About Botanical Supplements?

To answer this question, we invited Stefan Gafner, PhD, Chief Science Officer of the American Botanical Council, to share his thoughts. “If you’re among those who drink coffee to kick-start your morning, then you’ve noticed how extracts from plants can exert a noticeable effect on people. Botanical ingredients have been used for hundreds – if not thousands – of years for a range of beneficial health effects, such as promoting more restful sleep, help with minor gastrointestinal ailments, or alleviating mild symptoms of the cold. Many of these plants have been tested in clinical studies to support their benefits.”

“There is an impressive and growing number of human clinical studies on botanical ingredients and herbal dietary supplements published in scientific journals every month,” Dr. Gafner writes. “The quality of the trials has improved substantially over the past 10-15 years. I think this is an exhilarating time to study the safety and efficacy of botanical supplements, and I am looking forward to seeing what scientists will find in the years to come.”

Botanical supplements

Are Botanical Supplements Safe?

When it comes to quality, each manufacturer is responsible for conducting safety assessments of their products. Leading botanical manufacturers go the extra mile to assure the quality and safety of the ingredients in their products.

Some companies have advanced testing programs to ensure proper identification of complex botanical ingredients, which includes DNA testing. Industry leaders are collaborating with the Natural Health Products (NHP) Research Alliance, based at the University of Guelph, on an initiative to develop new, mutually agreed upon standards for botanical ingredient authentication for consumer safety.

Just like vitamins and minerals, we recommend consulting with your health care provider before incorporating botanical supplements to your regimen.

Dr. Gafner recommends looking for manufacturers that are transparent about their standards and practices. “When it comes to choosing a brand, I often recommend that consumers review the company’s website, their sourcing philosophy, and their quality systems. Companies that are willing to divulge where they get their plants, how sustainable their agricultural practices are, and how much they invest in ensuring the quality of their ingredients and products will have a competitive advantage.”

young man taking fish oil supplement

Should Consumers Feel Safe About Dietary Supplements?

In the United States, all supplement manufacturers must follow the current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP), which requires certain procedures that will ensure the identity, purity, quality, strength, and composition of dietary supplements through testing. Meeting these requirements will help ensure that each dietary supplement contains what is in the label and are free of contaminants.

In addition to national regulatory bodies, there are international organizations such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) that set out standards for laboratories so that the company’s laboratory tests are accurate and reliable. Some companies go so far as to obtain ISO certification for their laboratory testing methods.

When buying any food product, it’s essential to make sure it’s purchased from a reputable brand or manufacturer, especially when purchasing online. Do take the time to research the reputation of the company producing the supplement. Carefully look at their website to learn about their certifications and their measures to ensure you get a high-quality, safe product to meet your needs.

Most importantly, individual needs are different. Certain health conditions, medications, and even genetic makeup can impact whether a specific nutrient, when consumed in recommended amounts, is, in fact, a good thing. For example, a person who has inherited the HFE gene may be prone to excess storage of iron. Supplementing with iron is likely something this individual will need to reconsider.

Key Takeaway

Generally, for healthy individuals, supplements are safe if they meet important quality standards and are consumed as recommended in support of a healthy diet.

Supplements are safe and beneficial, as long as you follow these guidelines:

Remember, supplements are not a one-and-done deal. You have to be consistent, or you won’t get the benefits. Supplements are meant to support your diet, so if wellness is your goal, aim to live a healthy, active lifestyle.

Kent L. Bradley, M.D., MBA, MPH – Chief Health and Nutrition Officer

Kent L. BradleyM.D., MBA, MPH – Chief Health and Nutrition Officer

Dr. Bradley is a retired Army Colonel, graduate of the United States Military Academy and has a Master in Public Health from the University of Minnesota, an executive MBA from the University of Denver, and a medical degree from the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, Bethesda, Maryland. He is board certified in Public Health and Preventive Medicine and holds a certificate in Corporate Governance from INSEAD.