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Why Do We Need Food Supplements?

Updated: Nov 11

Let’s start by clearing the air about food supplements. You have probably heard about vitamins, minerals and food supplements in your daily lives. You've also probably heard several debates on whether we really need food supplementation. In this article, we hope to clarify why we need food supplements.


What are food supplements?

The definition of nutrition refers to “The process of taking in food and using it for growth, metabolism, and repair”[1]. Thus, what we take in as food, determines the nourishment of our bodies. The human body needs to acquire six different categories of nutrients from food. The nutrients are proteins, carbohydrates, fats, fibres, vitamins and minerals. Most of the global population is lacking in at least one of these essential nutrients. This is due to our varied lifestyles and eating habits. Due to this poor diet, we require supplementation. This is one of the main reasons for why we need food supplements.


Nutritional Food Supplementation

Nutritional supplementation is the addition of missing nutritional elements to our diet. Supplementation occurs in the form of food sources. Alternatively, it can occur in the form of pure nutrient packaged in tablets, capsules, gels or syrups of a fixed dosage. Food supplements, in particular, refer to the concentrated form of nutrients consumed in a dose form[2]. In addition to the food supplements of vitamins, minerals, amino acids and fatty acids that are currently available. Plant-derived bioactive compounds are also available as food supplements. As these are not medical products, they are not intended to prevent or treat human diseases. Their goal is to maintain the normal functioning of the human body.


Food Supplements in Europe

In Europe, supplement use is common in Denmark and Germany (59% and 43% of the adult population respectively). However, it is not so common in Spain (9%)[3]. It is also estimated that more women consume supplements than men.

Types of food supplements

Vitamin Supplements

Vitamins are organic molecules required in adequate doses. This is for the maintenance and for the proper functioning of our bodies. Although our body can produce many vitamins, there are many others that are only obtainable from a dietary source. However, our body’s stores of vitamins need to be constantly replaced. This is due to easy excretion through urine or difficulties in absorption. Further, some vitamins like vitamin D3, require adequate sunlight for its production[4]. Sun exposure is lower in the northern latitudes, particularly in winter this leads to vitamin deficiencies therefore requiring supplementation from external sources, such as food supplements.


Supplementation of Minerals

Being inorganic elements, our bodies cannot synthesise mineral nutrients. All the minerals in our body come from plant or animal sources and drinking water. They are essential however, for many biochemical pathways. These include those involved in the body’s normal energy-yielding metabolism as well as in the function of the immune system. A lack of adequate access to a balanced diet causes a majority of the population to be lacking in one or more of the major minerals. For example, the World Health Organisation estimates that 24.8% of the world population may have low serum iron levels[5]. While 56.9% of the European population has an insufficient iodine intake[6]. It is imperative therefore, that we fortify our diet with mineral food supplements. This supplementation will help us to overcome mineral deficiencies.


Amino acid Supplements

Proteins are the building blocks of our body. A peptide is the non-functional subunit of a protein which is in turn composed of amino acids. Although the human body can only utilise 21 amino acids they form the 25,000 known proteins encoded by the human genome. Of these 21 amino acids, the human body cannot synthesise 9 of them. The production of 6 others is impaired by the body due to certain pathophysiological conditions. Thus, most of the amino acids essential to meet the energy and metabolic demands of the human body need food supplementation.


Additionally, micronutrient deficiencies such as a vitamin B or zinc deficiency, an increase in physical activity, a lifestyle change such as smoking or alcohol consumption can increase the metabolic demand[7]. Further, there is no conclusive evidence of long-term protein storage by the body. Regular food supplementation of amino acids seems to be the only way to maintain a healthy life-cycle.


Supplementation with plant extracts

Also known as phytoextracts, extracts from the various parts of plants are important in traditional medicine. Plant extracts such as curcumin, quercetin and resveratrol can help to strengthen and regulate the immune system. Therefore, helping with upper respiratory infections, and as potent anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds. Phytoextracts however, suffer from problems of very low bioavailability since they are generally poorly soluble in water and are rapidly metabolized[8],[9]. This highlights the need to continuously replace their body-supportive benefits through food supplementation.


Who needs food supplements?

As mentioned earlier, our bodies cannot synthesize a lot of the essential nutrients we need. These nutrients help with the normal functioning of our bodies. However, we have lost many of the synthesising functions during evolution. Alternatively, some of these essential nutrients are simply not available to us. This can be due to a number of reasons, such as aging, disease and improper and imbalanced diets. A loss of nutrients from the body can also occur due to a high metabolic rate associated with sports and other heavy physical activity[10]. Finally, imbalances can also occur when we follow special diet regimens. This is since they exclude certain food categories. Thus, certain sources of essential nutrients no longer feature in our daily dietary intake.


Examples of population groups requiring specific advice about supplements[3]

The Global Food Supplement Market

The vitamin supplement market emerged as the largest segment of the global food supplement market in 2019 (revenue of USD 39.61 billion). Based on the market trends, the global food supplement market is likely to reach USD 230.73 billion by 2027 registering a CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) of 8.2% from 2020 to 2027[11]. Of this, the proteins and amino acids segment is set to rise at a CAGR of 12.8% from 2020–2027. While the global plant extract market, which is growing at a CAGR of 6%, has a projection of reaching USD 61.30 billion by 2025[12].


Summary of why we need food supplements

  • The availability of essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, amino acids, plant-derived bioactive compounds varies with age, sex, disease-state, diet and physical activity.

  • Food supplements refer to the concentrated form of nutrients consumed in a fixed-dose powder, tablet, capsule or syrup form.

  • Food supplements can correct nutrient imbalances and support the body’s normal functions.

The content of this article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or health provider before starting a new health regime. Do not self-medicate, ignore medical advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read in this article.


References (Why We Need Food Supplements)

  1. https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=4602

  2. http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/topics/topic/food-supplements

  3. https://www.eufic.org/en/healthy-living/article/food-supplements-who-needs-them-and-when

  4. The National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements. Dietary supplement fact sheets. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/list-all/

  5. WHO | Worldwide prevalence on anaemia 1993–2005. Published 2008. Accessed on 14–10–2020. https://www.who.int/vmnis/anaemia/prevalence/en/

  6. de Benoist B et al., eds. Iodine status worldwide. WHO Global Database on Iodine Deficiency. Geneva, World Health Organization, 2004

  7. Joint FAO/WHO/UNU Expert Consultation on Protein and Amino Acid Requirements in Human Nutrition(WHO Press: Geneva, Switzerland). 2002

  8. Mignet N, Seguin J and Chabot GG. Bioavailability of Polyphenol Liposomes: A Challenge Ahead. Pharmaceutics (2013), 457–471.

  9. Gary R. Beecher. Proanthocyanidins: Biological Activities Associated with Human Health. Pharmaceutical Biology (2004), 42(sup1): 2–20.

  10. http://www.eurreca.org/micronutrients-and-sports/

  11. https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2020/03/10/1997963/0/en/Global-Dietary-Supplements-Market-Size-Share-Trends-2020-2027.html

  12. Plant Extracts Market Share Current and Future Industry Trends, 2020–2025 — MarketWatch. Accessed on 14–10–2020. https://www.marketwatch.com/press-release/plant-extracts-market-share-current-and-future-industry-trends-2020-2025-2020-08-07

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