What are Food Supplements and Who Needs Them?

What are food supplements?

The idea behind food supplements, also called dietary or nutritional supplements, is to deliver nutrients that may not be consumed in sufficient quantities. Food supplements can be vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids, and other substances delivered in the form of pills, tablets, capsules, liquid, etc.1 Supplements are available in a range of doses, and in different combinations. However, only a certain amount of each nutrient is needed for our bodies to function, and higher amounts are not necessarily better. At high doses, some substances may have adverse effects, and may become harmful. For the reason of safeguarding consumers’ health, supplements can therefore only be legally sold with an appropriate daily dose recommendation, and a warning statement not to exceed that dose.

Supplement use varies in Europe. For example it is common in Germany and Denmark (43% and 59% of the adult population respectively) but is less so in Ireland and Spain (23% and 9% respectively). Women use supplements more than men.

Who needs food supplements?

Supplements are not a substitute for a balanced healthy diet. A diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, adequate protein, and healthy fats should normally provide all the nutrients needed for good health. Most European countries agree that messages aimed at the general public should focus on food-based dietary guidelines. Supplements do not feature in these guidelines, but there are certain population groups or individuals who may need advice about supplements, even when they eat a healthy balanced diet, i.e. women of childbearing age, individuals on specific medications.

Partly due to our modern lifestyle, not everyone manages to eat a healthy diet. In Europe, dietary surveys have suggested that there are suboptimal intakes for several micronutrients. The EU-funded EURRECA project found inadequate intakes for vitamin C, vitamin D, folic acid, calcium, selenium and iodine. A recent comparison of national surveys showed widespread concern about vitamin D intakes, whereas certain age groups are more likely to have low intakes of minerals.2 For example, there is concern about adequate intakes of iron amongst teenage girls in Denmark, France, Poland, Germany and the UK. Poor iron status in young women also increases the risk of infants being born with low-birth weight, iron deficiency and delayed brain development. Folate status is also critical for women who may become pregnant. They are advised to take folic acid before conception, and continue for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. An adequate folate status can decrease the risk of having a baby with neural tube defects such as spina bifida. Recent research suggests that 50–70% of Europeans have poor vitamin D status. Since vitamin D status is dependent not only on dietary intake but also exposure to UV light, there may be a stronger case for advising supplements for vitamin D in Northern European countries. In some countries (including UK, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden) there are already recommendations for certain groups in the population to take a vitamin D supplement, although there are calls for more research.

Particular risks for specific population groups Despite having a role in the health of some individuals, not all supplements are useful for everybody. In fact, for some people, it is not advisable to take certain supplements, in particular in high doses. Some studies show multivitamins can contribute to an increased risk of excessive nutrient intakes, and it has been suggested that multivitamins should be formulated with greater consideration for the intakes of micronutrients from foods. Individuals should pay particular attention to reading the label and assure that a supplement is suitable for them. For pregnant woman, for example, supplements containing vitamin A (retinol) including fish liver oil may be harmful and cause birth defects if the recommended dose is greatly exceeded, or exceeded over an extended period of time.


Some population groups are advised to take specific supplements. The overall message is: follow a healthy, balanced diet, carefully read labels of supplements and fortified foods, and avoid taking multiple doses that exceed the Recommended Daily Amounts (RDAs). In case of doubt, seek advice from a dietitian or medical doctor before choosing a dietary supplement.


The Difference Between Medical Masks and Respirators

Will a surgical mask offer protection against smoke from wildfires and other airborne pollution, or do you need a respirator? You’ve probably heard people talk about respirators and face masks, whether we’re facing a potential global pandemic like the coronavirus or catastrophic wildfires causing record-setting smoke & air pollution. However, the difference between the two types of masks is not always clear. Medical face masks and respirators are both capable of providing excellent protection against airborne particulates, but how are they different, and when should you use one or the other?

Medical Face Masks

Face masks are helpful in hospitals, doctor’s offices, and other settings where airborne pathogens are prevalent. Face masks are perfect at preventing bodily fluids containing bacteria and viruses from entering (or leaving) your body. In general, medical masks are capable of safeguarding your mouth and nose from most micro-organisms, which like to hitch rides on airborne water particulates. Face masks are also great at making sure you don’t accidentally touch your lips with germ-infested hands (especially for children!).

Because the design of medical face masks is to stop water droplets, they are generally more likely to be looser fitting, and may leave a gap between the edge of the cover and your skin. Whereas heavier drops of water are less likely to skirt around the edges of the masks, the gaps do make face masks less effective at protecting against smaller particulates that sneak around the edges, even if they would otherwise get caught in the mask fabric itself.

Respirator Masks

Respirator masks are similar to face masks in shape… other than the valves that some respirators contain, they are often indistinguishable. On the other hand, they are much more capable of safeguarding against tiny airborne particulate pollution.

First, the structure of a respirator like the N95 (or KN95) is engineered so the mask fits tightly against the face, reducing the gap which standard face masks have. Industrial-grade respirators leave practically no gap at all, whereas wildfire smoke masks – often designed to reduce pollution down to tolerable levels instead of eliminating it entirely – will trade a small amount of protection in order to save your lungs from the strain of a sealed respirator.

Second, the filtering material in respirators is much more dense, because they are designed to safeguard against pm2.5 particulate pollution created by vehicle exhaust, wildfire smoke, and industrial & agricultural emissions.  Of course, a respirator will also filter larger particulates like germ-carrying water droplets and aerosols.  If you’re using a respirator to protect against germs and viruses, remember the tradeoff with a regular mask is slightly more inhalation resistance, which means respirators should not be used in situations where a regular face mask works just as well. Respirator masks like the N95 are designed for use by healthcare professionals, industrial settings, as well as in polluted outdoor environments. Medical facemasks are more suited to protect against short-term exposure, as well as keeping other people safe from your own sneezes and coughs.

How do I know which is which?

Respirator masks like the N95, N99 or KN95 typically are labelled as such, and should indicate on the mask or the packaging that they are NIOSH-approved. Respirator filters are also available in disposable and reusable versions. Disposable filters can’t be formally certified as N95 compliant since they won’t form a 100% seal, but they can still be capable of reducing a meaningful amount of pollutants. Just take note that in no cases should face masks or respirators be shared.

We hope we explained how masks and respirators differ from one another.

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