Food Supplements: Yes or No?

Nutritional and dietary supplements, and food substitutes have become an indispensable part of a child’s life. But, are we overlooking the fact that they may be unnecessary, or even harmful?

By Poorvisha Ravi

Food Supplements: Yes or No?


You are glued to your television set, watching your favourite movie. In just 3 hours, you are subjected to a dozen breaks and umpteen number of advertisements related to nutritional supplements for children. One ad says your child’s IQ will zoom instantly while another talks about the glucose power he requires. Even as leading consumer healthcare companies insist on additional supplements, medical practitioners stay firm on the concept of balanced diet with natural nutrients. As a parent, you sure are caught between a rock and a hard place.

Millions of Indian parents can relate to the twice-a-day ritual of a steaming cup of milk flavoured with their children's favourite brand of malted mix. As Chennai-based stay-at-home mom, Geetha Sriram puts it, “Kids like the flavour of food supplements. Ironically, this seems to be the only way to get them to consume anything other than junk food.” Experts, however, have a more discerning opinion. According to Colorado State University datasheet, dietary supplements include vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, enzymes, and other substances which might not be completely natural.

Always consult a doctor

“Children who are undernourished or do not improve even after consuming a healthy diet can consume supplements and enhancers to improve their health,” says Chennai-based nutritionist and nutrigenetic counsellor, R Dhananjayan. Echoing similar thoughts, Dr Arun Arachelvan, leading paediatrician from New Delhi says, “If a child gets tired easily, maybe iron and zinc can be supplemented. But, this should be done only after consulting a doctor.” Geetha, an apprehensive mother, feels, “Children who are active in sports definitely need food supplements for sustained stamina.”

Are nutritional supplements safe?

Jacob Vincent, a fitness fanatic, bats for balanced diet over dietary supplements. “There are certain pre-digested formulas in the market. The macro nutrients in these formulas are broken down into much finer units, so they can be directly absorbed into the body. When normal children are fed such supplements, their body takes in excessive amounts of nutrients. This then leads to over-nutrition and can lead to mineral or fat-soluble-vitamin toxicity, which causes gastrointestinal discomfort,” he says, adding that overfeeding of supplements can cause childhood obesity.

In a study conducted by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs in July 2013, several popular health drinks were found to contain lower levels of micronutrients and higher levels of sugar/calories, than claimed by the manufacturers. In spite of such worrying statistics, parents opt for food and nutritional supplements for their children right from the tender stage of infancy.

The case of infant formula

While older kids are fed malted drinks, infants are fed formula as a substitute to breast milk. Unquestionably, all evidence points to the goodness of breast milk over food substitutes, yet the infant formula market in India is growing at 10-12% each year.

Nutritionist Peter Mennona affirms that breast milk is the perfect food for the baby, but stops short of criticising formula milk. “(Lactating) mothers should consume a well-rounded, natural diet that consists of organic fruits, vegetables and protein-rich food items. In case the mother is not able to breastfeed the child, formula feed may be the only option. But, if it is not prepared properly, it can lead to abdominal discomfort and over-or-underfeeding.” Medical professional Radhika Barde asserts “To this day, there is no actual ‘formula’ for formula. Officially, the World Health Organisation (WHO) designates breast milk as the first choice in infant-feeding. The second choice is the mother’s own milk given in a bottle, and the third choice is breast milk from a milk bank or wet nurse. Formula is the last choice.”

Making the right choice

Dhananjayan sums up by stating, “Supplement intake should be gradually reduced. When children are able to meet about 75% of their daily requirements through regular food, supplements can be stopped.” He recommends nuts, cereal-pulse mixes and other natural flavouring substances such as cardamom and almonds as supplements with milk.

Dr. Arun advises parents not to buy into advertising all the time. He recommends, “100% whey with no artificial sweeteners is any day better than any malted drink.” If you do continue using nutritional supplements, it is best done under medical supervision and within the recommended dosage as specified on the labels. Radhika adds that parents can play an important role by educating children with these facts. “Supplements aren't candy, even if they come in fun names, colours, shapes and package design,” she says. To sum up in her words, “Supplements are just that – supplements, not an excuse to forgo smart eating.”

Let’s evaluate!

A lot has been said and done in the diet and nutrition market. Let’s take a look at some intriguing research results on the most commonly used dietary supplements and substitutes.