Food supplements: pros and cons. A decalogue for correct use

Food supplements: pros and cons. A decalogue for correct use

What are? What do they contain and how to use them consciously? The expert replies

32 million Italians (65% of the adult population) make use of food supplements, a market that at the end of 2019 reached a value of about 3.6 billion euros (retail price value), which grew by 3, 6% in value compared to 2018. Very high numbers, so much so that in the pharmacy, the main sales channel, supplements are confirmed as the second category after prescription drugs and make the greatest contribution to growth.

But what are food supplements? Are they really useful? And how to use them consciously? Dr. Susanna Bramante, nutrition consultant, answers our questions.


  • What are
  • What are they for
  • When to take them
  • The Decalogue for a correct use

What are

"Food supplements – explains the expert – are defined by the sector legislation (Directive 2002/46 / EC, implemented with the legislative decree 21 May 2004, n. 169) as food products intended to integrate the common diet and which constitute a concentrated source of nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, or of other substances having a nutritional or physiological effect, in particular, but not exclusively, amino acids, essential fatty acids, fibers and extracts of plant origin, both single and multi-compound, in pre-dosed forms ".

They are usually presented in small consumption units such as capsules, tablets, sachets, vials and the like, and can contribute to well-being by optimizing the state or promoting normal body functions with the supply of nutrients or other substances with a nutritional or physiological effect. . "Marketing – continues the nutritionist – is subject to the label notification procedure to the Ministry of Health. DL21 May 2004 n169. Once the notification procedure has been successfully concluded, the supplements are included with a code in a publicly available register of supplements of the Ministry of Health ”.

What are they for

And we come to the age-old question: are they really useful? Experts agree that a healthy and balanced diet alone is sufficient to ensure the correct intake of substances useful for our well-being. "Scientific evidence on the use of food supplements shows that in the vast majority of cases their use is not only improper – as a balanced diet would be much more effective to" heal "any deficiencies in trace elements or vitamins – but that often these products are they associate with undesirable effects, both for the concomitance of pathologies or pharmacological treatments with which they can interfere, and for the potential adverse effects when trace elements and vitamins are taken in doses higher than the real needs ", says Dr. Bramante.

It is therefore essential that doctors and pharmacists inform their patients that supplements are never a substitute for a healthy and balanced diet.

When to take them

"In general – recommends the nutritionist – a correct and balanced diet protects you from the risk of deficiency in water-soluble vitamins. Therefore, the use of food supplements is limited to the prevention of malnutrition by default. However, there are cases in which integration is necessary, for example:

  • deficiencies resulting from pathological states, such as impaired digestion / absorption, decreased intake or increased excretion, malnutrition; eating disorders, vomiting, hospital stay (lack of or reduced endogenous synthesis, alcoholic liver disease);
  • deficiencies resulting from ethical choices (iron deficiency in vegetarians, vitamin B12 deficiency in vegans).

It is necessary to underline that supplements are food products and as such they cannot boast therapeutic properties or ability to prevent and cure diseases ”.

The Decalogue for a correct use

And to help consumers make informed choices, the Ministry of Health in 2019 published an information brochure with 10 useful tips:

  • Remember that a varied and balanced diet generally provides all the nutrients the body needs and which is essential to protect and promote your health and well-being in the context of a healthy and active lifestyle. Consequently, in order to obtain an overall advantage, the use of a food supplement for its nutritional or physiological effects must take place in the context described above and must never be dictated by the erroneous belief that it can "compensate" for the negative effects of incorrect behavior.
  • If you intend to use a supplement, make sure that the effects indicated on the label actually meet your specific needs for optimizing health and well-being and do not exceed the indicated intake quantities. Food supplements can claim on the label only the beneficial effects on health previously authorized by the European Commission for their constituents, after the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has ascertained the scientific basis.
  • Always read the label in full and pay particular attention to the methods of use, storage methods and ingredients present, also in consideration of any allergies or intolerances, and to all warnings. Different supplements, due to the presence of specific constituents, may carry additional warnings for safe use. In the event that a supplement requires continuous use, for example to promote the normal level of cholesterol in the blood or blood pressure, periodically consult your doctor to assess the progress of the situation and the state of your general condition.
  • Ask your doctor for advice on the use of a supplement if you are not in good health or are being treated with drugs to make sure that there are no contraindications to your condition. In any case, inform your doctor if you use supplements, especially when prescribing drugs.
  • For the administration of supplements to children, listen to the advice of the pediatrician; if you are pregnant or breastfeeding it is still good to hear the advice of your doctor.
  • Remember that a product is not safe just because it is "natural" but that, indeed, precisely because of its "physiological" activity profile, it could cause unexpected and unwanted effects under certain conditions. Therefore, if in conjunction with the intake of a supplement you detect something wrong, different from the expected effects, stop taking it and promptly inform the doctor or pharmacist (possibly bringing him the package used), who will be able to report the event. to the phytovigilance system of the Higher Institute of Health (Vigierbe).
  • Remember that supplements are designed to contribute to well-being and not for the treatment of pathological conditions, which must be treated with drugs. The use of supplements in quantities greater than those indicated on the label distorts their role without offering physiologically better results. On the contrary, it can become disadvantageous, especially if it is prolonged over time.
  • Remember that to reduce overweight and dispose of excess fat, you must reduce your calorie intake with a nutritionally adequate diet and, at the same time, increase the body's energy expenditure with a good level of physical activity. The use of any food supplement, for the purpose of weight reduction, can only have a secondary and accessory effect due to the specific indications on the label. Do not follow low-calorie diets for prolonged periods without consulting a doctor to evaluate their adequacy according to your specific needs. Remember that to maintain the result achieved in terms of weight loss you must permanently change your eating habits and follow an active lifestyle, removing sedentary behaviors.
  • Even if you play sports, with a varied and balanced diet you can meet the body's nutritional needs. Any use of food supplements for the indications on the label that justify their use in sports must still take into account the type of sport practiced, its intensity and duration, as well as the specific individual conditions.
  • Supplements, like many other products, are now also available outside the common commercial channels, such as the internet. Be wary of supplements and products touted for their amazing properties and effects or as "miraculous" solutions to your problems. On the portal of the Ministry of Health ( you will find useful information on the constituents allowed for the use of supplements and the Register, which you can consult, in which the products regularly notified for placing on the Italian market are recorded.
  • Tag: Supplements

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