The Difference Between Dietary Supplements and Drugs
There are important similarities and differences between dietary supplements and drugs that every responsible consumer should know. For instance, both dietary supplements and drugs can have positive effects on the body, both can cause problems if taken incorrectly, and both can be derived from plants (natural sources).
But there are also notable differences in what drugs and supplements are designed to do and how they’re regulated:
A drug is any substance intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent disease. Drugs have to be tested and approved by the Food and Drug Administration to show that they’re safe and effective in treating or diagnosing a specified disease or medical condition. The FDA also continues to monitor drugs once they’ve been released into the market.
The FDA defines a dietary supplement as “a product intended for ingestion that contains a ‘dietary ingredient’ intended to add further nutritional value to (supplement) the diet."
Some dietary supplements help lower the risk of disease, some claim to maintain the structure or function of certain organs for a specific benefit, while others — like multivitamins — help ensure adequate intake of nutrients. However, the FDA categorizes dietary supplements as a food rather than a drug, so supplements aren’t tested or approved by the FDA before hitting the market.
It’s possible for a dietary supplement to become a drug, but it must go through a drug’s regulatory path and clinical trials, which takes several years.
Still, it’s not uncommon for consumers to mistake a dietary supplement for a drug. Often, they’ll turn to a supplement they can buy at the grocery store to treat a condition instead of visiting a doctor or filling an expensive prescription, but only drugs are designed to treat diseases.
Many consumers are also under the impression that supplements are inherently “natural" and safe, but the lack of regulation surrounding the testing, manufacturing, and labeling of supplements can lead to potentially harmful products. Independent tests have found some dietary supplements contaminated with things like heavy metals, bacteria, pesticides, and even traces of prescription drugs. Accurate and honest labeling is solely up to the manufacturer.