Food Supplements: Too Much of a Good Thing?

Although convenient, "pumped up" bars and shakes are likely not better than whole foods.

Americans love dietary supplements—more than half of American adults take at least one—and this love has grown to include “food supplements,” foods enhanced with extra vitamins, minerals, fiber, phytochemicals or probiotics.

Food supplements are a type of “functional food,” or foods that offer health benefits beyond basic nutrition. According to the Institute of Food Technologists, in 2012 at least 60 percent of Americans consumed functional foods occasionally, and that market is growing. But how do nutrient-boosted bars, shakes and other products compare with whole nutrient-rich foods? Are they an effective means of providing essential nutrients, or could they lead to excessive intake? Here are three questions to consider:

      1. Are food supplements better for you than other foods? That depends. If you’re having difficulty meeting your nutrient needs from whole foods, you could use a food supplement to fill the gap instead of taking a supplement in pill form. For example, someone who has difficulty eating due to low appetite may benefit from shakes and other liquid food supplement that provide not just vitamins and minerals, but much-needed calories and protein. Be cautious: the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t review or approve food supplements, or the claims they make on their packaging.
      2. Do you need the additional nutrients that this food supplement offers? Just because it’s important to get enough of the nutrients necessary for good health, extra isn’t always better. According to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, people who use dietary supplements are more likely to do so with the goal of improving health, not to make up for any nutrient shortfalls. As with dietary supplements in pill form, people who use food supplements tend to be those least likely to actually need them.
      3. Are you using food supplements to replace whole foods? A high-fiber protein bar or a pre-made shake may be a convenient way to fit in some nutrition you may be missing out on a few fronts. No matter how healthful food supplements are marketed as being, many are highly processed. Despite the added nutrients, they are lacking the true synergy that comes from getting your nutrients in their original form in whole foods. Additionally, some bioactive components added to foods, including phytonutrients and omega-3 fatty acids, may not survive the manufacturing process.

—Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN

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