We see them in stores, magazine advertisements, commercials, and practically everywhere online. Today, the marketplace is flooded with miracle drugs, dietary supplements, natural remedies, and prescription medications — all claiming to solve any number of serious health problems.
However, most consumers don’t understand the differences between supplements and drugs. And if they can’t identify what sets the two apart, they can’t protect themselves from potentially harmful substances posing as safe products on the drug-store shelf.
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.
How to be a Conscious Consumer
When consumers are educated on the differences between dietary supplements and drugs, they can make better choices about which fit their needs and lifestyle. Here are a few tips for becoming a more conscious consumer:
Check with a physician. You should consult a physician before taking any supplement or drug — even something over-the-counter. A doctor can tell you if you’re taking the right product or if any drug or supplement could be dangerous to you.
Find out if a drug is FDA approved. Although few people do much research before taking a prescription or over-the-counter drug, it’s always best to get a little background information first. The FDA provides resources to help consumers find out which drugs have FDA approval and even which have generic or appropriate alternates.
Research supplement history. Like with drugs, do a little research into all dietary supplements before you introduce them into your routine. You can do this through the FDA’s resources and scientific and health journals. Ensure that the supplement won’t cause any adverse reactions or exacerbate any current health conditions. Also, check the manufacturer for safety or health violations.
Recognize regulatory loopholes. There are a few tricks companies use to skirt around U.S. regulatory standards, which may put consumers at risk. Non-English advertisements, labels, or health claims aren’t highly regulated through the FDA’s standards. Labels that contain “FDA-certified cGMP facility” simply mean the manufacturer claims to follow regulatory standards — not that the product has been tested and/or regulated by the FDA.
Drugs and dietary supplements both have a place in the market, but unlike what many consumers believe, they’re not interchangeable substances. To protect yourself from potentially harmful products or side effects, learn the differences between drugs and dietary supplements so you can make the best decisions for your health.
About the Author: Kevin Xu is the CEO of MEBO International, a California- and Beijing-based intellectual property management company specializing in applied health systems. He also leads Skingenix, which specializes in skin organ regeneration and the research and development of botanical drug products. Skingenix is listed in the 2014 Empact100 Showcase.