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Food Supplements: What exactly are they?

Updated: Jun 16

What exactly are supplements?

Supplements following the English definition would mean a thing added to something else in order to complete or enhance it. Generally, something extra, to make up for a shortcoming. I needed to make you understand that the word “supplement” is first an English word before it is used as a general term in science. Going by the definition you read earlier, you will see that certain words pop outrightly. Words like “addition”, “enhance”, “to complete”, and “to make up”. This is to establish the first function of what anything that is termed a supplement does or is supposed to do. They are to make up for the inadequacy of the main thing.

Now, let us talk about dietary supplements.

Still using the understanding of the definition of the base word described above, dietary supplements are basically making up for dietary inadequacies. Dietary supplements are most often available for essential minerals and vitamins, isolated proteins and other micronutrients. Dietary supplements are important in helping a nutritionally deficient person recover from ailments or symptoms that those nutrient deficiencies may cause.

The prevalence of beriberi in the nineteenth century which killed many children and caused ailments in most adults who ate more white rice was seen to be a consequence of the Vitamin B1 that was removed from the harvested rice during its milling and polishing. Rice is a major staple in major cities all over the world, so you can imagine how many people suffered from this deficiency caused by a food processing procedure. That was a great discovery and after that time, the knowledge has kept many from dying and being sick due to Vitamin B1 deficiency. Here, we see how vitamin supplements could rescue many if they mostly ate nutrient-deficient foods. Better still they could eat foods with adequate nutrients.

The U.S National Institute of Health in its Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act passed in 1994 (1) defined it this way: “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 labelled on the front panel as being a dietary supplement.”

When do you need a dietary supplement?

I have walked in on many people while taking supplements and I have essentially asked why they do. I realise that aside from those that were prescribed to have these supplements, the other vast majority are just self-medicating. It is important you visit your healthcare professional who will eventually run blood work to identify if there are deficiencies before they can ask you to take them and at recommended doses too.

Supplements are most effective due to the active ingredients in them. Although many would record strong effects in their body due to these active ingredients. However, unnoticeable for many as long as it is addressing the health problem.

So, ideally, if you are not taking in enough nutrient-containing foods and you become deficient in a nutrient or have a medical complication that does not allow the adequacy of food nutrients through diet, you may be advised by your healthcare professional to begin to take food supplements to make up for the inadequacies and raise the availability of that nutrient in your body.

However, essentially, nutrients are best taken in through our diets and that still remains the most sustainable and safest form of dietary nutrient intake.

Things you should know about supplements

  • Supplements are target specific.

  • They are needed when there is a deficiency.

  • They should be prescribed to you only before you take them.

  • You should not overdose on them.

  • Having a label tag like "natural" does not mean being safe.

  • Have regular check-ups to know when to discontinue them.

Are Dietary supplements also grouped as drugs?

In as much as food or dietary supplements are often made in the form of medications or pills, they still do not get classified as drugs. Their regulations are done very differently and they are independent of being grouped as food or drug. As much as that might sound a bit out of place since they are supposed to make up for a nutrient deficiency, they still maintain an appearance of medication either as capsules, tablets or syrups.

In many countries like the United States of America, the intended use of a product determines if it will be classified as a drug, food or supplement. This will be stated by the manufacturers. The FDA does not carry out tests to verify the potency or efficacy of dietary supplements as they do with drugs, they basically work with the manufacturer's data.

What then stands the supplements out?

Here are a few important pieces of information mandatory to be on the supplements’ label.

  1. You are going to see general information like the name of the product which must include the word “supplement”, the quantity of the content, the direction for use, the producer’s name and the place of production.

  2. The content’s profile and facts. This will include the list of ingredients and their proportions in value, the dose or serving size, serving quantity, and nutritional value (%DV).

  3. Other non-dietary ingredients used in the manufacturing should be listed. Things like colours, binding agents, flavours, sweeteners, etc. They will be listed according to the quantity used.

  4. Also, a cautionary statement will be included to notify anyone of allergens present or adverse effects that the supplement may cause.

  5. Stamp, sign or approval from the agency that regulates food and drugs in your country. Although, none of the stamps or signs determines the efficacy or quality of that supplement. So, you should get your doctor’s view on them.

In the next blog, I will be sharing with you very important things to note before you begin to take any supplements if it is necessary you take them. Kindly stay tuned.


At this point, I will love to state that the content of information in this article only provides information that should not take the place of medical advice. I am pro-consultation; hence ensure you discuss this with your healthcare provider (pharmacists, doctors, dietitians, etc) before you begin any medication or supplement in this case. Neither I nor this article is endorsing or marketing any supplement. We are solely here to disseminate helpful information for your use.

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