ACES Publications

Author: Kajuandra Harris Huntley
PubID: HE-0917
Title: Understanding Dietary Supplements
Pages: 2     Balance: 0
HE-0917 Understanding Dietary Supplements

Understanding Dietary Supplements

People often take dietary supplements without knowing exactly what they are taking. Sometimes they get recommendations from friends or they are influenced by television commercials or magazine advertisements. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 prohibits manufacturers from claiming their products "treat, cure, or prevent." However, they can make other claims. Within the past decade, there has been a significant increase in the number of reported poisonings associated with dietary supplements and other products (vitamins, minerals, essential oils, and homeopathic remedies).

If you are considering taking a dietary supplement, first talk to your doctor to see whether he or she has any recommendations.

What You Need to Know

  • Dietary supplements are products taken by mouth that contain "dietary ingredients" intended to supplement the diet.

  • They contain one or more dietary ingredients, including vitamins, minerals, herbs, botanicals, amino acids, and substances such as enzymes, organ tissues, extracts, glandulars, and metabolites.

  • Dietary supplements come in a variety of forms, such as a pill, capsule, tablet, powder, energy bar, or drink. Supplements should be taken by mouth.

  • Dietary supplements are labeled on the front panel as being a supplement.

  • Dietary supplements are not intended to treat, diagnose, slow, prevent, or cure diseases.

  • Unlike prescription drugs, dietary supplements are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration for safety and effectiveness.

  • Taking a combination of supplements or using these products with prescribed medicines could be harmful or even life threatening.

  • Dietary supplements are not intended to treat, diagnose, mitigate, prevent, or cure disease or replace food in a diet.

How to Recognize a Supplement

Look for the Supplement Facts panel on the packaging.
Supplement Facts Panel

Quick Tips

  • The term natural doesn't mean safe.
  • Safety is important!
  • Think twice. Talk to your doctor about quick fixes.
  • Learn to spot false claims.
  • Consider potential side effects.
  • Take a list of your supplements with you to the doctor.

Vitamins, Minerals, Nutrients Botanicals and Other Substances

  Vitamin B complex
Multiple vitamin
Vitamin C
Vitamin D
Vitamin E
Beta carotene
Omega 3 fatty acids
Folic acid
Black cohosh
Gotu kola
Ginkgo biloba
Fish oil
Glucosamine chondroitin
Saint John's wort
Saw palmetto

Potential Side Effects

Some supplements may interact with prescription and over-the-counter medicines. Taking a combination of supplements or using these products with medications could, under certain circumstances, produce adverse effects, some of which could be life threatening. Examples include calcium, magnesium, vitamin K, St. John's Wort, and vitamin E.

Dietary supplements should be treated like all medicines and kept out of reach of small children.

Questions to Ask

Before Taking Supplements
  1. Do I need this supplement?
  2. Do I know that this supplement is safe?
  3. Does this supplement interact with any drug or food I am consuming?
  4. Do I know that this supplement works?
  5. Can I afford this supplement?
  6. Do I know enough about this supplement?
  7. Does the label provide a way to contact the company?
  8. How does my doctor feel about this?
  9. Does this product claim to be a "miracle cure" or "new discovery"?
  10. Could this product interact with prescription medications?
To report serious side effects, call (800) FDA-1088 or visit the FDA online at


U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
American Association for Poison Control Centers


HE-0917, New August 2010. Kajuandra Harris Huntley, Extension Specialist, Human Nutrition, Diet, and Health, Auburn University.

For more information, contact your county Extension office. Visit or look in your telephone directory under your county's name to find contact information.

Published by the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (Alabama A&M University and Auburn University), an equal opportunity educator and employer.

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