ODS Director's Message

The Science Behind Dietary Supplement Databases

Stefan M. Pasiakos, Ph.D.

December 2023

The mission of the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) is to advance and disseminate research on dietary supplements to foster knowledge and optimize health across the lifespan. One of the ways we achieve that mission is through the cultivation of the ODS Dietary Supplement Label Database (DSLD) and the Dietary Supplement Ingredient Database (DSID), led by Mr. Richard Bailen and Dr. Johanna Dwyer. For this month’s Director’s Message, I discuss the science behind these databases and highlight how they inform scientific and public understanding of the role dietary supplements may serve in supporting healthy dietary intakes and enhancing quality of life.

 In response to the growing popularity of dietary supplements, Congress provided ODS funding in the early 2000s to develop what is now the DSLD, a publicly available database of dietary supplement products that are sold in the United States. The DSLD currently contains more than 178,000 records, and about 1,000 new records are added each month. In addition to labeled ingredients and doses, the DSLD includes an image of the product label showing all claims and recommendations as well as several searchable fields, allowing researchers to easily find information commonly sought in scientific studies.

The DSLD is used for many purposes. Health care providers can examine the nutrients and other ingredients their patients obtain from the supplements they take. Colleagues at the U.S. Department of Defense can determine if product labels list any ingredients that might adversely or positively affect servicemembers’ health and performance. Manufacturers and distributors can compare their products with others. Colleagues at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration can view Supplement Facts panels and claims listed on product labels, and researchers who work with data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey can use it to look up supplements participants report that they are taking.

 But how do we know that what’s on the label is actually inside the bottle? When ODS first explored this question, no publicly available analytic data for dietary supplement products existed. This led to a collaborative effort between ODS and colleagues at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center to collect a representative sample of the most popular dietary supplement products and analyze their micronutrient content. Thus, the DSID was born. This important tool allows researchers and consumers to compare labeled values with analytical values from a representative sample of dietary supplement products. To date, data are available for child, adult, and prenatal multivitamin/mineral supplements as well as calcium, vitamin D, and omega-3 supplements. A spin-off of this analytical chemistry work has been the development of validated and reproducible assays that are properly adapted for dietary supplement products.

Although ODS has made considerable progress in better identifying the nutrient content of various dietary supplements, there is more work to be done. For example, studies on flavonoid compounds in cranberry supplements have yielded mixed results on outcomes such as the prevalence of urinary tract infections. One potential reason for the mixed nature of the findings may be that the cranberry supplements used in many studies were not carefully analyzed with respect to their flavonoid content or their ability to dissolve and disintegrate in the gastrointestinal tract. Dr. Dwyer and her ODS and USDA colleagues are currently exploring these issues. Stay tuned to see what comes of this important work.

Looking to the future, we have been working with our federal partners the past few months to explore areas where database information, including the DSLD and DSID, will most likely be needed in the next few years and the best investments going forward that align with our mission at ODS. We welcome your thoughts.