Dietary & Health Supplements: Balancing the Benefits with Cautions over Safety, Efficacy

Dec 19, 2019

Supplements, from vitamins to minerals to extracts and more, have their place in healthy living, say nutrition and medical experts. but they have concerns over what you're buying and taking.
Credit Maiya Focht/WAER News

In our current world of health trends and fad diets, it can be difficult to separate out fact from fiction. In the case of dietary supplements, there happens to be quite a lot of overlap. To develop a better understanding of the lines between the two, and the science behind it, we interviewed three individuals with expertise in the field of supplements.


Owen Lewis is the owner of Green Planet Grocery, which is dedicated to all-natural living. He thinks most individuals could benefit from some form of dietary supplement. Some of those he finds most useful include probiotics, vitamin D, and multivitamins. In general, he believes just about every individual could benefit from some type of supplement.

“I look at supplements a lot of times as something to be an aid to get you where you want to be”

Professor Jessica Garay Redmond teaches a class on supplements in the Nutrition Department at Syracuse University's Falk College. She agrees vitamins and minerals have their place, but she has her reservations.

“I always recommend that whenever possible people use food first as the way to meet all their nutritional needs but in certain circumstances there are absolutely times where dietary supplements are appropriate”

Redmond finds there is likely biological benefit to some forms of these products. But in general, researchers only know how nutrition from whole food affects the body over time. To her, it’s in our best interest to ingest products we know are safe, food

The Director of Research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine Dr. Chris D’Adamo has a different view. He takes a number of supplements himself, and thinks that each person could benefit from them, regardless of diet. He makes a comparison to pharmaceuticals in terms of someone’s health regimen.

“Health is not one size fits all, and whether it be food, whether it be drugs, and the same thing goes with supplements, they’re going to help some people and they’re not going to help other people”

He also encourges individuals to consider their lifestyle.  No one herbal pill is going to for example, boost your metabolism, correct all your health issues, or seriously extend your life. Just as there is no wonder drug, there is no wonder supplement. Any pill that promises overnight change is likely to be ineffective at best, and harmful at worst.

Green Planet Grocery owner Owen Lewis says they try to source all products from reputable sources that have testing confirmation about ingredients.
Credit Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows

Lewis agrees that often these products promise more than they deliver.  

“I would say that supplement labeling can be confusing, and sometimes purposefully misleading”

That’s because there is little regulation on the production and distribution process. He says they at Green Planet ensure quality control by partnering only with reputable sources. The FDA offers only “soft regulation” on supplements, as compared to how they regulate food. If a product is harmful, it really only comes off the shelf after the consumer discovers it.

In order to protect yourself from this, Doctor D’Adamo has some steps you can take. First, you need to know what’s in the product. Second, you need to know if what is in the product is effective. Third, you need to determine if what is on the label is actually in the bottle.

D’Adamo and Redmond agree that the best way to follow these steps is through third party testing sites such as labdoor.com or the National Institute of Health’s online supplements base. If you can’t research a product before purchase, than you could also look for the United States Pharmacopeia, “USP”, stamp on the bottle.

“You can read what’s on the label but there’s no real way to verify that that’s actually in the pill itself. And so these third party testing companies are currently the best way to have more confidence in what you’re spending money on”

She finds its especially important to research protein and weight loss supplements before purchasing. They are often tainted with medications, or may simply promise misleading results. In general though, she recommends researching all supplements before purchase.

150 million Americans use some type of supplement. Dr. D’Adamo says those looking into the purity, safety, and effectiveness of their products are in the minority, but growing.

So, In order to be a responsible consumer and a healthy individual, you may take your vitamin E and your St. John’s wart, but you must also develop a healthy amount of skepticism about what you are purchasing.