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Food supplements are food products comprising concentrated sources of nutrients designed to supplement the intake of nutrients from a balanced diet.

Although a healthy diet should provide all the nutrients the human body needs for a day, this does not apply to all nutrients nor all population groups. Food supplements therefore round out this food regime to encourage people’s wellbeing.

Food supplements are defined under Directive 2002/46/EC from the European Parliament (transposed into the Spanish legal system by Royal Decree 1487/2009) as “ foodstuffs the purpose of which is to supplement the normal diet and which are concentrated sources of nutrients or other substances with a nutritional or physiological effect, alone or in combination, marketed in dose form, namely forms such as capsules, pastilles, tablets, pills and other similar forms, sachets of powder, ampoules of liquids, drop dispensing bottles and other similar forms of liquids and powders designed to be taken in measured small unit quantities”.

Consumers buy food supplements with the idea of attaining an optimal state of health and protecting themselves from possible aggressions the body suffers. A large part of the population associates them with the idea of a natural treatment with no adverse health effects.

They can be marketed in multiple forms: capsules, pastilles, sachets of powder, ampoules of liquids, etc. Their ingredients are usually found in a simple or combined form. The recommended daily dose on the label of each food supplement should not be exceeded.

There are no differences between these three terms as they can all be used to designate these types of products. They ought to be marketed under the term food supplement.

Food supplements came about to help attain the reference daily intake (RDI) or recommended daily allowance (RDA) of nutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc.) in the event of dietary deficiencies, providing a dosed amount of these types of products.

The recommended allowance of nutrients a person should take each day depends on their sex and age. Nutrient references values (NRVs) reflect the amount of vitamins and minerals the human body needs, considering the two specific variables mentioned. Food supplement labels indicate the percentage of these values according to the amount the dose contains.

These amounts are established by the European Food and Safety Agency (EFSA) in the European Union and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US.

Vitamins and minerals are essential nutritional substances called micronutrients because our body needs them in small amounts. They are indispensable to proper body functioning, despite the fact that the body is incapable of producing them on its own.

Specifically, vitamins are nutrients which the body requires in small amounts as it does not produce most of them. There are two types of vitamins:

  • Water-soluble: Vitamin C and the B vitamins.
  • Fat-soluble: Vitamins A, D, E and K.

For their part, minerals are inorganic chemical elements that are indispensable to life, our growth and therefore reproduction. The most important ones are: calcium, copper, chromium, phosphorous, fluoride, iron, magnesium, selenium and zinc.

Both vitamins and minerals should be provided by a balanced diet. However, a high dose of vitamins A, D and K can be toxic to the body.

Essential fatty acids are the basic components of fat, along with glycerol. They are fats that the body is not capable of synthesising or transforming and which it should get from a healthy diet and food.

Omega 3 is the essential fatty acid supplemented most often because of its multiple functions for the body. Fat can be classified into three groups:

  • Saturated: mostly present in animal-based foods like meat and sausages.
  • Unsaturated: from plants and fatty fish like salmon.
  • Polyunsaturated: this group includes Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids.

There is usually no type of interaction between food supplements and medicines, although it could happen as there is nutritional activity involved. The best thing is to get your doctor to assess your case personally and check with them if you are taking a food supplement or thinking about taking one.

Food supplements are indicated for the prevention and compensation of nutritional deficiencies and not the prevention or treatment of disease. So although no prescription is required supervision is advised.

Food supplements can be necessary in the case of diets lacking in nutrients, situations of stress or when convalescing, among other reasons, to meet expert recommendations but not exceed them and it is always advisable to take them at the recommendation of a health professional (doctor, nurse, chemist, etc.).

The vitamins and minerals we obtain through our diet might not be enough for our body even if we eat well, particularly in terms of those that the body doesn’t store. Food supplements are designed to replace any extra needs that might appear, especially if we think our diet covers all of our nutritional content when in fact it doesn’t.

A food supplement is never a replacement for a healthy diet that properly combines the different seasonal produce of the Mediterranean diet, one of the healthiest and most balanced diets in the world. Although supplements can optimise our nutritional status they can never replace a healthy diet.

Food supplements help improve your quality of life and attain the best possible wellbeing. That’s why you can take them at times when you are aware that your diet isn’t as healthy as it should be, when you aren’t getting good, restorative sleep or when you are going through a period of great stress. In short, food supplements can contribute to a good lifestyle without their consumption being associated with the appearance of an ailment.

Food supplements provide the vitamins and minerals the body can’t get from food. They therefore help you get the nutritional content you need to go around your daily life with normality and without impairing your health.

A food supplement does not prevent or treat disease but can help regulate the body’s nutritional shortfalls.

It is very hard for food supplements to have side effects for the health of people who take them, but it is advisable to pay special attention, particularly when trying a product for the first time.

Read the label – it will contain any information on contraindications and allergens. If you have a question about the composition of a food supplement, check with your doctor. Also ask your doctor and immediately stop taking a supplement if you have any unexpected reaction.

Recent studies have found that some food supplements, particularly multivitamin and mineral ones, can have negative health impacts. An excess of nutrients can be harmful, according to Dietary Supplements and Mortality Rate in Older Women: The Iowa Women’s Health Study.

Similarly, Taking Dietary Supplements? It May be Too Much, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, explains that people used to taking food supplements are those with the most comprehensive and healthy diets and least likely to have a nutrient deficiency, setting themselves up to therefore suffer a side effect due to excess.

Food supplements cannot be compared with medicines. It would be a serious mistake to consider that their effects will begin to be felt or seen as quickly as happens with drugs. Each person is unique and has their own metabolism so it would also be a mistake to talk about exact days, weeks or months. The normal tendency does show that it is vitamin-based supplements whose beneficial effects first start to be noticed in people’s bodies.

According to the Spanish Agency for Consumer Affairs, Food Safety and Nutrition (AECOSAN), we should at present consider the reports from the Scientific Committee on Food and other international organisations with proven scientific renown until such time as the European Union establishes maximum levels of nutrients and other substances with a nutritional or physiological effect.

The objective is to ensure that the normal use of food supplements in accordance with the instructions for use provided by the manufacturer does not put consumers in danger.

Vitamins, minerals, amino acids, essential fatty acids, fibre, different plants and herb extracts form the set of nutrients or other elements that can be found in food supplements, according to AECOSAN.

Some of the existing requirements are as follows:

  • Vitamins and minerals: the chemical substances used must not present a danger for humans and must be available for the body.
  • Amino acids, essential fatty acids, fibre, different plant and vegetable elements: according to the European laws in force, only the rules for vitamins and minerals used as ingredients in food supplements are regulated in Spain, with regulations on other ingredients and nutrients used in food supplements being able to be regulated in a subsequent phase after getting scientific figures.

There is no problem so long as the following two requirements are met: that the product and dose are recommended for children.

Pursuant to the law concerning these products in Spain (Royal Decree 1487/2009 on food supplements), the labelling, presentation and advertising of food supplements must not include any mention stating or implying that a balanced and varied diet cannot provide appropriate quantities of nutrients in general. Similarly, food supplements must not be attributed any properties of preventing, treating or curing a human disease or refer to these properties in any way.

It should be noted that these products must be sold under the heading of a food supplement.

In accordance with the regulations on food supplements, the information that must be featured on the label of these products is as follows:

  • The names of the categories of the nutrients or substances that characterise the product.
  • The portion of the product recommended for daily consumption.
  • A warning of the risks to health if this is exceeded.
  • A declaration to the effect that the supplement is not a substitute for a varied diet.
  • A warning to the effect that the product should be stored out of the reach of young children.

Furthermore, the amount of nutrients or substances with a nutritional or physiological effect contained in the product must be stated on the label in a numerical form. It is not necessary to specify anything about possible side effects or interactions with medicines.

Ideas about a healthy lifestyle have undergone a sea change in recent years, moving away from the treatment of diseases to their prevention. This is reflected in the food supplement industry, too, where prevention is becoming increasingly important, to the point that it nearly equals the benefits they provide these days.

Today’s consumer knows the benefits of the nutrition/health dichotomy, requires more objective product information, is concerned about chronic noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) and seeks alternative products, including food supplements.

According to PlantLIBRA, 54% of Spaniards who took a food supplement in 2016 did so in the form of a capsule. This was followed by tablets (21%), sachets (15%) and liquids (10%). Meanwhile, 74% of Spanish consumers have a lot of confidence in these products, 23% quite a lot of confidence, and only 2% and 1% have little or no confidence in them.

Other interesting figures at the sociodemographic level show that the main group of food supplement consumers in Europe and Spain are women between 18 and 59 years of age, with an average level of education and who work. In both cases, health food stores are their favourite place for buying these types of products.

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