Alan Tichenal and Joannie Dobbs

Health Options


Rules differ for foods
and supplements

The line dividing foods from dietary supplements is not always a clear one.

Of course, if you compare a loaf of bread to a bottle of vitamins the differences are obvious: One is clearly a basic food, the other clearly a supplement to the diet.

But compare a box of regular breakfast cereal to a box of cereal fortified with all essential nutrients. The fortified cereal is just like taking a vitamin/mineral pill with your cereal. However, the fortified cereal is not considered a supplement and so must follow labeling requirements for foods.

On the other hand, some products legally considered supplements seem more like foods. A bag of chewy chocolate candies must be labeled as a food, but when high levels of supplemental calcium are added, the candies become dietary supplements and must be labeled with information on suggested use so people don't consume excessive calcium.

Question: What are the main differences between the labeling of foods and supplements?

A: Foods are required to have "Nutrition Facts" panels and comply with the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act; dietary supplements must have "Supplement Facts" panels and follow the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates both.

For foods, the FDA regulates ingredient safety before and after food production. For supplements, the agency is responsible for taking action only after an unsafe product reaches the market. Many substances sold as supplements -- for example, most medicinal herbs and their extracts -- cannot legally be added to foods.

The FDA maintains a list of substances "Generally Recognized as Safe" for addition to food products. Commonly called the GRAS list, it does not include herbs such as ginseng and stevia.

Q: Why can't herbs be used in drinks and foods?

A: In the United States, herbs without a safety history must be thoroughly tested before they are considered to be safe food additives.

A number of new-age energy drinks contained herbs such as ephedra (ma huang), ginseng and echinacea until FDA informed producers that these are not GRAS food additives and must be removed. The chemicals in medicinal herbs function as drugs and can have potentially serious interactions with both prescription and non-prescription drugs.

Q: What are functional foods and nutraceuticals?

A: Neither term has a legal definition. A functional food is a modified food that provides a health benefit beyond its usual nutrients. Calcium-fortified orange juice is a functional food because orange juice doesn't normally contain calcium at levels similar to milk.

The term nutraceutical is very broadly used to refer to medical foods, foods for special dietary use and dietary supplements containing isolated nutrients or herbs.

Creativity in the food industry tends to blur the line between foods and supplements. As a consumer protection agency, the FDA strives to define the distinctions in ways that protect public health.

Health Events

Alan Titchenal, Ph.D., C.N.S., is a sports nutritionist in the
Department of Human Nutrition, Food and Animal Science,
University of Hawaii-Manoa.

Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S., is a food and nutrition consultant
and owner of Exploring New Concepts, a nutritional consulting firm.
She is also responsible for the nutritional analyses
indicated by an asterisk in this section.

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