Health food supplements pack nutrients like magnesium or other substances like fish oils into convenient delivery systems like tablets to supplement your diet. 

The easiest way to think of food supplements is as a nutritional boost for those days when you can't get all you need from food alone. 

Supplements can replicate the nutritional value of food and help you overcome deficiencies with potent doses of certain substances. 

Some supplements are also the only way for some people to consume emerging supplements and rare foods that aren't easy to find in supermarkets – bee propolis and lion's mane are excellent examples. 

Popping a few capsules during the day or mixing some powder into water is far easier and less time-consuming than meal prep and eating, with these delivery systems offering a fast way to meet your nutrient quota for optimal health.   

Types of Health Food Supplements

Some health food supplements have a single-star ingredient, like a vitamin C tablet, while others are more of a nutrient team, blending various compounds like vitamins, minerals, and herbs in one product (think multivitamins). 

We can broadly categorise health food supplements into:

  • Vitamins and Minerals: Self-explanatory nutrient boosters like vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium, iron, etc.
  • Botanicals: Herbs, roots, fungi, and other plant-derived extracts like St. John's Wort and ginkgo biloba.
  • Sports Nutrition: Products for active lifestyles like protein powders, creatine, electrolyte drinks, etc.
  • Specialty: Emerging categories like CoQ10, probiotics, nootropics, omegas, antioxidants, and more aimed at overall wellness.

Health Benefits of Food Supplements 

Food supplements substitute the vitamins, minerals, and valuable compounds lost through dieting or bodily production abnormalities. In this sense, they support the body and help to maintain your overall health and wellness. 

For example:

  • Calcium and vitamin D help keep bones strong.
  • Vitamin E maintains healthy skin and eyes.
  • Zinc helps your body make DNA.
  • Folic acid decreases the risk of certain birth defects.
  • Magnesium maintains muscles, nerves, bones, and blood sugar.

Most people take supplements to fill nutrient gaps when dietary intake is inadequate and maintain specific bodily functions that require particular vitamins/minerals.

Boosting your intake of antioxidants like vitamins C and E and increasing your intake of omega-3s, probiotics, and botanicals can help you overcome seasonal change

Some people are at a high risk of deficiency-related conditions and need to take food supplements. For example, breastfeeding women have increased nutrient needs to support foetal development and breastmilk production, and older adults have lower absorption ability for some nutrients like B12.

Delivery Systems

A supplement's delivery system is the product format that transports the active ingredients into the body and facilitates absorption.

Examples include:

  • Oils and liquids. 
  • Capsules (hard gelatine or vegetable capsules).
  • Soft gels.
  • Gummies/chewies.

Some supplements are available in multiple delivery systems – for example, vitamin C comes in capsule, tablet, powder, gummy, soft gel, and liquid form. 

The efficacy of delivery systems is simple: liquids are absorbed into the bloodstream faster and more completely than dry products like pills.

Gummies sit between the two categories and are easier to swallow than capsules and tablets, with no unusual smell.

Natural Versus Synthetic 

Health food supplements can be either natural or synthetic, and there isn't anything inherently bad about either. 

Most natural supplements are derived from plants, animals, or fungi, while synthetic ones are made artificially in a laboratory. 

Some substances, like vitamins C and E, are readily found in nature, but their supplements use synthetic forms anyway—a decision borne from the cost-effectiveness and greater availability of synthetic compounds. 

Some synthetic nutrients (like vitamin B12) are more stable than their natural counterparts, and some natural supplements can still contain additives or contaminants if they are not properly sourced.

The most significant advantage of natural supplements is they provide nutrients in their original, complex forms found in nature, which some people prefer. 

The one thing we would say about that is studies show the differences between natural and synthetic groups are not statistically significant in terms of bioavailability or body recognition, meaning both affect the body similarly. 

Vegan and Vegetarian

Vegan supplements are free from animal ingredients, while vegetarian supplements don't contain animal ingredients but might use animal by-products, such as fish oils and animal fats, in their production. 

As long as they deliver the same dosage and quality of an underlying nutrient, vegan and vegetarian supplements should be no less effective than non-vegan ones. The effects should be identical. 

There isn't a certification requirement to use the words vegan or vegetarian in labelling or marketing – it's up to the supplier to represent their products accurately. However, certified products do offer greater peace of mind. 

Food Supplement Labelling 

In the UK, food supplements must be labelled with:

  • The name/category of any vitamin, mineral or substance with a nutritional/physiological effect characterising the product.
  • The recommended daily portion for consumption.
  • A warning not to exceed the stated recommended daily dose.
  • A statement that food supplements should not substitute a varied diet.
  • A statement that the product should be stored away from young children.
  • The amount of any vitamin, mineral or other substance present.

For vitamins and minerals, the amount must be accompanied by the relevant Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) percentage as set out in the Annex to EU Directive 2008/100/EC.

General labelling requirements of the Food Labelling Regulations 1996 also apply, such as listing ingredients, date marking, storage conditions, manufacturer details, and instructions for use. 

If making vegetarian/vegan claims, this should follow best practice guidance for precise and accurate labelling, though there is no legal definition.

To label their products organic, the manufacturer must register with an approved organic control body, such as the Soil Association. FSC Supplements' organic products, such as Cold Pressed Organic Flaxseed Oil, hold this certification. 

Summing Up 

Food health supplements are safe, high-quality products that can supplement a balanced diet and provide essential health benefits. 

Some supplements, like vitamin D, can benefit most of us in the UK because of the lack of sunshine, while some diets make supplementation helpful to maintain our health - B12 and B9 for vegans and vegetarians, for instance. 

Herbal food supplements and botanicals like bilberry and damiana are also popular sources of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and compounds only found in natural food sources, with their health benefits enjoyed in traditional medicine. 

Taking food supplements is the best way to fuel your body and brain with the proper nutrients. Just remember that they should not be used as a substitute for a varied diet and healthy lifestyle.