Get smart about health and dietary supplements

Updated: 23 Jun 2016
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Oral health and dietary supplements can provide a nutritional boost. But to minimise your risk of harm, it's important to practise caution before purchasing.

What are health or dietary supplements

Health or dietary supplements simply refer to products that help supplement the diet or enhance health. Supplements may come in various forms such as:

  • Capsules
  • Soft gels
  • Tablets
  • Liquids

Health supplements are generally considered low-risk and do not prevent, treat, or cure illnesses, or relieve symptoms of illnesses.

How are health or dietary supplements regulated

Unlike medicines, health or dietary supplements need not obtain approvals, licensing or registration before they can be sold. Their effectiveness is also not assessed.

Dealers are responsible for products' safety and quality, and have to ensure that:

  • Products do not claim to treat illnesses
  • The packaging contains sufficient information for consumers to review before purchase
  • Products do not contain prohibited ingredients including western medicinal ingredients or other active substances except those stated on the label

However, a post-market surveillance programme by the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) is in place to monitor the safety of health or dietary supplements and to initiate timely product recalls when necessary. The programme uses a risk-based method to sample products in the market. Secondly, it leverages the HSA's network of healthcare professionals and international regulatory partners to receive news on adverse reactions to products.

Notwithstanding these safeguards, you should also practise personal caution. Here's why:

  1. Health or dietary supplements are not subject to regulations on approvals, licensing, and efficacy. The onus is on dealers to be ethical, accurate and honest in claims
  2. Advertisements of health or dietary supplements do not need to be screened by the HSA before publication
  3. Despite some claims, results from health or dietary supplements are slow and usually not obvious
  4. Low-risk does not mean no-risk. Overdosing, combining supplements or taking them with some medicines may cause harm. In general, patients scheduled for surgery should inform their doctor about any supplements they are taking. They may be required to stop taking them before the operation.

How to be a smart consumer

Here are a few tips to start you along:

1. Be cautious of exaggerated claims

They are often not backed by enough evidence. Be wary of products that promise "quick cures" and "easy solutions" to serious problems.

2. Recognise dubious marketing strategies

Many commonly used phrases are not easily verifiable. Examples include:

  • Case clinical histories
  • Complex data or statistics
  • Personal testimonies
  • Statements that claim the product is endorsed by the government, medical profession or research scientists
  • Impressive-sounding scientific terminology like stem cell therapy
  • Statements such as:
    • "Used safely by millions"
    • "Proven effective by thousands"
    • "Proven traditional remedies"
    • "New secret" formulations
    • "No-risk, 100% safe, money back guaranteed"
    • "Recommended by doctors, pharmacists or scientists"

3. Buy from reliable sources

Get your health or dietary supplements from reputable sources such as a pharmacy or established retail store. Stay away from dubious sellers on the Internet or street peddlers, even if recommended by a friend or relative.

4. When in doubt, walk away

Making an informed choice should be your top priority. Get advice from your doctor or pharmacist if you are unsure which product suits you.

Examples of exaggerated claims

Statements like the following are misleading and should be viewed with caution:

  • "...burns fat fast, reduces cellulite and helps you to slim quickly"

    This is usually an exaggeration. If it isn't, the product may contain prohibited potent ingredients that can cause dangerous side effects.

  • "...reduces cholesterol effectively and prevents heart diseases"

    There is usually no scientific evidence behind such a claim in health and dietary supplements.

  • "Efficacy or effectiveness guaranteed or clinically proven"

    Results cannot be guaranteed without stringent clinical studies. Be mindful that health or dietary supplements, including their clinical trials, are not evaluated by the HSA.

  • "100% safe or "no side effects"

    No product can offer such a guarantee, including supplements made with all-natural ingredients.

  • "For the first few days, you will feel some side effects such as sweating, diarrhoea, rashes, etc. Thereafter, the symptoms will subside as your body becomes adjusted to the product."

    Health or dietary supplements should not cause such side effects.

  • "Anti-stress" or "Reduce stress"

    This is a false and misleading claim as stress results from demanding circumstances.

  • "HSA approved"

    The HSA does not provide assessment or approval for health and dietary supplements. Dealers are responsible for the products' safety and quality.