Safety and quality of supplements

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This article (on the safety and quality of supplements) is the first in a series that we will publish periodically on our Blog. The series aims to highlight the most common misconceptions in the field of integration and provide practical tools to the reader to select effective supplements.

Supplements are defined by law as “food products intended to supplement the common diet and which constitute a concentrated source of nutrients”. They are therefore associated, from a regulatory point of view, with food and not with drugs. This association means that their peculiarity is safety. In fact, unlike drugs for which the side effects, although known, are accepted as justified by their therapeutic power, no risk-benefit assessment is allowed for supplements, which must be safe, always and in any case.

In order to guarantee safe use, there exist both national and regional control and surveillance systems. Italy, for instance, has introduced significant controls, thanks to additional guarantee instruments such as the request for authorization for national plants, the notification of products and the establishment of a register of notified products that can be consulted by everyone, both consumers and professionals, through the on -line web site of the Ministry of Health.

As far as the safety of the product is managed by law, being the supplement associated with a food rather than a drug, its effectiveness is not guaranteed. Nonetheless, the latest research is showing that many natural substances have a nutritional purpose and restore normal physiological functions. Unfortunately, studies in this area are still very limited and, to avoid consumer coercion, several countries are trying to regulate this aspect more and more. The health claims on the label must in fact be authorized at Community level, after being scientifically evaluated by the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA), while those relating to plant extracts are authorized by the Italian Ministry of Health (there is no EU directive) . However, since scientific research in this field is very limited, the claims associated with the various ingredients (i.e. those phrases used to underline the peculiarity of the ingredients) are still very few and restricted to a small number of substances and health conditions. In addition, they refer only to the type of ingredient, while it is now known that the same substance will have different effects based on the chemical form, bioavailability and their interaction with the other ingredients present in the supplement.

A useful tool for the consumer, in directing her or his choice, is the label. It constitutes the first approach with the product and represents the bridge between the producer and the consumer, the tool that the company uses to inform the customer, highlighting the peculiarities of the product and trying to justify its price. But the information reported can be hard for non-professionals to interpret. Sometimes it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to understand what type of ingredient is present (for example, there are different forms of Vitamin B12 that vary in effectiveness and price), how much active ingredient the product actually contains, if the manufacturing process used is able to maintain the health characteristics of the ingredient, if the mix of ingredients is the best one, and so on. To overcome this problem, non-compulsory certifications were born, which manufacturers can only obtain if their raw materials and processes maintain high technological and safety standards. Unfortunately, they are very expensive and therefore find little application in the world of integration, especially of low quality.

A security problem can also come from the common “do it yourself” practice. The choice and administration of the supplement is increasingly managed independently by the consumer, sometimes guided more by the fashions and recommendations of friends than by the indications of a specialist. Thus, it is often the case that the dose indicated on the label is exceeded, that the possible interactions of the supplement with the drugs that are being taken are not known (extremely dangerous for those who use life-saving drugs), or that a bad use of a product can lead to the opposite effect to that desired, so that an antioxidant can become a pro-oxidant. This is why we always suggest contacting a professional, who will be able to show us the product that best suits our needs, its daily dosage and which company to contact to ensure safety, seriousness and professionalism.

Given the importance of the topic, this article wants to be the first in a series that we will publish periodically on our Blog. This series will try to highlight which are the most common misconceptions in the field of integration, what are the attentions and “tricks” to be applied when we are faced with two apparently identical products, how to understand, with a quick look at the label , if what I have in my hands is really a good product. New supplements appear daily on the market and being able to extricate oneself in this “mare magnum” becomes increasingly complex.