The Definition of Food Supplements

Nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, are best derived from food sources. However, you might find it difficult to eat a balanced diet on a regular basis, especially if you have special food considerations, like allergies, that make certain items off-limits. Food supplements -- also called dietary supplements -- can help you get the nutrients you lack from your regular diet. However, they're not intended to replace healthy meals and snacks. Consult with your doctor or registered dietitian before taking any food supplements.

Form and Function

Food supplements support your diet when certain nutrients are absent. Supplements come in tablet or gel-capsule form, as well as powders added to water. Almost 40 percent of adults in the U.S. take a multivitamin -- the most common dietary supplement -- according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Other food supplements include meal replacement bars and shakes which are sometimes used for weight loss. Ensuring your daily nutritional needs are met through a healthy diet, and supplements, if necessary, may decrease the risk for chronic illnesses.

Common Ingredients

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Multivitamins contain the most comprehensive list of ingredients. These include vitamins A, B complex, C and E, as well as important minerals like zinc and iron. You may only need a single supplement if you’re deficient in one nutrient. Examples include iron, vitamin C or vitamin B-12. Some food supplements even support certain life stages. For instance, a doctor may recommend a folic acid supplement for pregnant women, or a calcium-vitamin D combination for seniors.

Other Types of Supplements

Not all supplements offer nutritional value. Products made with tea, herbs and other botanical ingredients shouldn't replace regular nutrients. Read herbal supplement labels carefully -- many are falsely marketed as methods of disease prevention without any evidence to back these claims. These products don’t contain essential nutrients, so they're not effective dietary supplements.

Use With Caution

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Food supplements are supposed to help, but there's a chance they may do more harm than good. Overdose is a concern with supplements. Too much vitamin A may cause bone loss, while large doses of calcium can increase prostate cancer risks in men, according to Harvard Health. Determine your current dietary needs and take a blood test to prevent nutrient overdoses. Also ask your doctor if food supplements can interact with your medications.