The Multibillion Dollar Industry of Nutritional Supplements

Is food alone enough to meet your health and fitness goals?

By Michael Ormsbee, PhDFlorida State University
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Many of you have heard the advice “whole foods first” when it comes to your diet and the famous Hippocrates quote, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” This is solid advice, but is it ever necessary to supplement our diets? Professor Ormsbee explores this question.

nutritional suppliment vitamins on table
Nutritional supplements, capsule, tablet, or liquid form, provide vitamins, minerals, proteins, amino acids, and other nutritional substances that may be lacking in your dietary intake of foods. (Image: Shutterstock/Supitcha McAdam)

What Are Nutritional Supplements?

We know that food is necessary to fuel our daily activities and that the composition of what we eat may affect our body composition and performance. However, is there a point where foods are not enough to obtain our optimal level and peak capacity? Is there a need to add nutritional supplements into our diet on top of what we eat?

Sometimes it is difficult to obtain all the nutrients we need from diet alone, particularly when it comes to micronutrients. In fact, many people end up with minor deficiencies in one nutrient or another. 

Thus, you may be wondering whether you should use supplements in order to avoid these deficiencies, be healthier in general, or fast-track your body-composition goals. It is no secret that many people are looking to supplements to gain an extra edge for fat loss, body transformation, energy levels, and performance.

These supplements or ergogenic aids as they’re often categorized are termed sports and performance nutrition or sports supplements because many athletes are looking for an edge. Supplement use is not limited to athletes, though. These supplements come in many shapes and sizes, from pills to powders to gels, and the general public eats them up.

A Booming Industry

You may be surprised to learn how much money is spent on supplements each year. A 2012 study by Persistence Market Research released a report revealing that the global sports nutrition market, which includes sports foods, drinks, and supplements, was valued at $20.7 billion.

With the overwhelming amount of advice and testimonials about consuming supplements, it is difficult to determine which of these products work, which are a waste of your money, and which products could be harmful.

It seems that almost weekly there is a story in the news about contaminated supplements that creates the impression that supplements are completely unregulated. According to Professor Ormsbee, though, this is not true and, like many news stories, often one bad scenario paints the entire industry with the same brush. 

Making Sense of Supplements

Admittedly, though, it can be quite confusing, and even the most experienced consumer has doubts when it comes to choosing the best supplement. 

“It’s confusing even for people like me, who studies these supplements on a regular basis, to know just what to choose,” Professor Ormsbee said. “How do you know that the doctor pushing this new miracle product isn’t being paid by the company to promote it?”

The field of performance nutrition is dynamic. New research comes out almost daily that can change the general consensus on any single topic. 

While there are many performance supplements that show no real benefit, other supplements could actually be quite beneficial to health, body composition, and performance. In fact, some performance supplements have shown safety and efficacy for a long time and have now made their way into the clinical world to alleviate and prevent diseases.

A lot of money is being pumped into this niche market. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s article, where you’ll learn what to look for on the label of a nutritional supplement.

Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University.

Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his MS in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his PhD in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
About Kate Findley 323 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.