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What you need to know about the most popular dietary and nutritional supplements on the market.

A visit to the health food store can be an overwhelming experience. It's tough to figure out what to choose from among the dizzying assortment of dietary and nutritional supplements on the shelf. From vitamins to minerals to weight loss pills, there are thousands of options to choose from. But do you really need any of them? Do they really work, and if so, which ones are best?

WebMD turned to some experts for answers about the multibillion-dollar dietary and nutritional supplement industry.

Total sales for the U.S. dietary supplement industry in 2006 are estimated at $22.1 billion, with vitamins accounting for $7.2 billion of that, says Patrick Rea, editor of the market research publication Nutrition Business Journal. Included in this total are not only sales of vitamins, but also those of minerals, herbs/botanicals, sports supplements, meal supplements, and weight loss products.

How Are Dietary Supplements Regulated?

The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, approved by Congress in 1994, defines dietary supplements as products that:

  • Are intended to supplement the diet
  • Contain one or more ingredients (like vitamins, herbs, amino acids or their constituents)
  • Are intended to be taken by mouth
  • Are labeled as dietary supplements

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) once regulated dietary supplements the same way it does foods, but that changed as of Aug. 24, 2007. The FDA's new good manufacturing practices ruling ensures that supplements:

  • Are produced in a quality manner
  • Do not contain contaminants or impurities
  • Are accurately labeled

"Making cereal is very different from making dietary supplements. ... This new ruling is very specific to the production of capsules and powders and will give consumers great confidence that what is on the label is indeed in the product," says Vasilios Frankos, PhD, of the FDA's Division of Dietary Supplement Programs.

The FDA provides manufacturers with guidelines for making claims about what effects their products have on the body, Frankos says.

"If they make a claim, they must notify us so we can review it," Frankos says. "Manufacturers have to provide us with evidence that their dietary supplements are effective and safe."

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