Pharmacy Times

Vitamin Supplements: Pointing Patients in the Right Direction

Author: Kate H. Gamble, Senior Editor

As supplements use continues to increase, pharmacists are being called on both to help patients select the right products to improve their overall health and to steer them away from false claims.


In recent years, use of vitamin supplements has become increasingly common. According to the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), more than 150 million Americans take dietary supplements each year to improve their overall health and fill in nutrient gaps.

As more supplements have become available over the counter, patients have begun to rely on pharmacists for guidance in choosing the right product to help meet their goals. For pharmacists, assisting patients in this selection of vitamins means not only having a firm understanding of the patient’s individual needs and the ingredients contained in various supplements, but also being able to determine which products might be offering incorrect information.

Trends in Supplement Use

A critical aspect of counseling patients on supplement use is in understanding trends in usage. In an online survey conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs for CRN, 65% of American adults identified themselves as supplement users in 2009, with multivitamins being the most popular choice. The survey found that nearly three-fourths of supplement users (74%) classify themselves as “regular” users, as opposed to “occasional” (21%) or “seasonal” (5%) users.

Notably, data show that more patients are taking vitamin D than in previous years. Findings from the 2010 survey indicate that 27% of supplement users take a vitamin D supplement, marking an increase from 19% in 2009 and 16% in 2008. “Given that optimal levels of vitamin D are difficult to get from diet and adequate sun exposure alone, a vitamin D supplement is the right option for many people,” said Judy Blatman, senior vice president of communications at CRN, in a statement.

The survey also found that consumer trust remains high, with 82% of American adults indicating that they are confident in the safety, quality, and effectiveness of dietary supplements, which are not required to receive FDA approval before they are marketed to the public. When vitamin and supplement manufacturers make unsubstantiated claims about a product (eg, claiming it will cure or prevent a condition; Table 1), pharmacists have an opportunity to help differentiate claim from fact and point patients in the right direction.

Last Line of Defense

Earlier this year, CRN released “Roadmap for Retailers: Safely Navigating What You Say About Dietary Supplements,” a tool to educate the supplement industry about its responsibilities with regard to the laws and regulations under which supplements are sold.

According to the CRN, patients obtain information about dietary supplements from a variety of sources to help guide their purchasing decisions, and at each level, there are laws governing what can be written or stated.

Manufacturers and marketers of supplements face restrictions as to the claims they can make about their products on the labeling, in print or broadcast advertising, on their Web sites, and in promotional literature. Similar requirements also apply to retailers and distributors who speak directly with consumers and help them choose supplement products that are suited to their individual needs.

In these conversations, “It is essential that individuals assisting consumers at the point of purchase discuss these products accurately and legally,” stated CRN. Pharmacists, who act as the last line of defense for many consumers, are urged to read labels carefully to become prepared for questions regarding a particular supplement’s ingredients, health benefits, or daily intake information. When assisting customers in their selection of dietary supplements, it is critical that pharmacists avoid suggesting that supplements can treat a disease or replace prescription drugs.

“There is a fine line that retailers walk between making claims that are helpful to their customers versus claims that run afoul of the law,” said Steve Mister, president and CEO of CRN, who urges all retailers, including pharmacists, to educate their employees about the specific regulations of supplement sales (Table 2).

The Roadmap, he added, “was written to help retailers embrace the role they play in properly educating consumers about supplement products and we hope that it will prove to be a valuable resource for the industry.”