The natural product industry divides nutritional supplements into six major categories – vitamins, minerals, herbs & botanicals, specialty supplements, meal supplements, and sports nutrition.  Vitamins, minerals, herbs & botanicals have been covered in Topics 1, 2 & 3.   

  • Specialty Supplements are defined as:  Supplements that do not fit into the other supplement sub-categories including: glucosamine, melatonin, DHEA, fish oils/shark cartilage, bee products, CoQ10, 5HTP, amino acids, homeopathic remedies, SAMe, chondroitin, probiotics, prebiotics, colostrum, other oils, other enzymes, other hormones, etc. 
  • Meal Supplements are defined as shelf-stable liquid or powdered nutritional formulas created primarily to substitute, but sometimes supplement, a meal. Some are enteral feeding formulas and some are weight loss formulas. Occasionally some are sold for medical purposes to frail or intestinally challenged people. 
  • Sports Nutrition supplements include all pills, powders/formulas and drinks formulated to enhance physical activity whether it’s endurance, strength, speed, or other athletic attributes. Sports nutrition products include creatine, amino acids, protein formulas, fat-burners, ribose, HMB, androstenedione, and many others.

Why this matters:

Sales of nutritional supplements exceeded $32 billion in 2012 (latest year available) and is growing about 7% per year.  More and more consumers shop for supplements due to the influence of the Dr. Oz TV Show.  Consumers of all ages are relying on nutritional supplements for disease prevention and wellness to reduce or avoid expensive medical costs.

Many, if not most, of the Specialty Supplements, are further classified into categories that are labeled as solutions to targeted health concerns.  For the most part, these are most often merchandised in the supplement department according to these recognizable health concerns, including the following:

  • Beauty
  • Bone & Joint Health
  • Brain & Memory
  • Cardiovascular Health
  • Children's, Women's, Men's
  • Cold & Flu
  • Detox & Cleansing
  • Energy Support
  • Gastrointestinal Health
  • Immune & Respiratory Health
  • Inflammation
  • Liver & Glandular Health
  • Mood, Sleep & Stress
  • Probiotics & Digestion
  • Vision

Other currently popular categories include weight loss, whole food supplements, sports supplements & hydration products, energy products plus sleep and stress reduction solutions, and newly emerging, blood sugar management supplements.

The following are some of the perennially popular specialty supplements:

5-HTP – (5-Hydroxytryptophan) is a by-product of the protein building block L-tryptophan.  It is produced commercially from the seeds of an African plant (Griffonia simplicifolia).  It is primarily used to aid sleep and reduce depression.  It is a direct metabolic precursor of serotonin and is important in the production of melatonin.

Alpha-lipoic Acid – is an antioxidant that is made by the body and is found in every cell, where it helps turn glucose into energy.  Studies have found that alpha-lipoic acid may help with Type 2 Diabetes by improving insulin resistance and protection of the retina from some of the damage that can occur with diabetes.  Studies also found that alpha-lipoic acid supplements can help with neuropathy -- nerve damage -- caused by diabetes or cancer treatment by reducing symptoms like pain, tingling, and prickling in the feet and legs.

Carnitine – The forms of carnitine typically found in natural product stores is acetyl-L-carnitine.  It is an antioxidant derived from an amino acid that is made by the body and helps the body turn fat into energy.  It is sometimes used for the treatment of heart disease and some athletes believe it is useful for improving athletic performance. 

Chondroitin sulfate – Chondroitin sulfate is a chemical normally found in cartilage around joints in the body.   manganese ascorbate, glucosamine sulfate, glucosamine hydrochloride, or N-acetyl glucosamine.  Chondroitin sulfate is also approved by the FDA for use in a liquid solution for dry eyes.

Coenzyme Q10 – CoQ10 is a powerful antioxidant, similar to a vitamin, that’s found in almost every cell in the body.  Researchers believe that CoQ10 may help with heart-related conditions because it can improve energy production in cells, prevent blood clot formation, and act as an antioxidant.  Various studies have also shown it helps control high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes among others.

Creatine – is made by the body naturally, but is most commonly used as a supplement for improving exercise performance and increasing muscle mass in athletes, particularly younger, healthy athletes.

Curcumin – Curcumin is the active constituent of turmeric, a culinary spice usually found in Indian curries and American mustard. Curcumin has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and has been traditionally used in India as a disinfectant and remedy and is now being studied for help with anti-aging, skin diseases, stomach diseases, and arthritis. 

DHEA – DHEA is an acronym for dehydroepiandrosterone, a hormone that is naturally produced by the body's adrenal glands.  DHEA supplements are often made from wild yam or soy.  Peak production of DHEA by the body occurs in the mid-20s, so many people take DHEA supplements to slow aging, provide more energy, improve mood, memory, and the immune system, and help maintain muscle and strength.

Enzymes – Enzymes are biologically active proteins found in all living cells that catalyze and regulate every biochemical reaction in the human body.  They are essential for cellular function and overall health.  Digestive enzymes support the process of breaking down food and drink into their smallest parts so the body can better absorb the nutrients and produce energy.  Systemic enzymes go beyond digestion, circulating throughout the bloodstream to support overall health. 

Essential Fatty Acids – Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) are required fat nutrients for good health. Humans and animals must get these nutrients from food because they cannot be synthesized in the body.  The two EFAs, linolenic and linoleic acid, are used to build specialized fats Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, critical for the normal functioning of all tissues of the body. Omega-3s are used in the formation of cell walls and assist in improving circulation and oxygen uptake.   Fish oils and flaxseed are the most popular sources for EFAs.

Glucosamine sulfate – Glucosamine sulfate is a naturally occurring chemical found in the fluid around joints in the body. It is commonly used for arthritis, especially osteoarthritis.  Glucosamine supplements often contain additional ingredients such as chondroitin sulfate, MSM, or shark cartilage. Some people think these combinations work better than taking just glucosamine sulfate alone.

Glutathione – Glutathione is a naturally occurring molecule found in many different kinds of cells in the body that acts as an antioxidant, an immune system booster, and a detoxifier.  It is very important to maintaining intracellular health, keeping cells running smoothly.  It also helps the liver remove chemicals that are foreign to the body.

Lycopene – Lycopene is a carotenoid responsible for the red color in fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, pink grapefruits, watermelons, and papayas. It must be obtained from food since the human body cannot produce lycopene.  Lycopene is beneficial for prostate health, breast cancer prevention, and cardiovascular health.   

Melatonin – Melatonin is a hormone made by the pineal gland in the brain from the amino acid tryptophan.  It helps control sleep and wake cycles and helps in controlling weight gain.  It is often used as a sleep aid.  However, melatonin can also have unwanted interactions with some medications and may have undesirable side effects on some people.  

Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) - MSM is a naturally occurring sulfur compound found in all vertebrates, including humans. It may also support sulfur absorption from foods such as cow's milk, meat, seafood, vegetables, fruits, and even coffee, tea, and chocolate.  MSM is well-known for its joint health benefits, and may also be helpful for other conditions related to chronic inflammation and damage due to oxidation.

N-acetylcysteine (NAC) - N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) is a specially modified form of the dietary amino acid cysteine. It is not found in food.  When taken as a supplement, NAC is thought to help the body make the important antioxidant enzyme, glutathione. It has shown promise for a number of conditions, especially chronic bronchitis, and according to the Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, it may also have benefits for psychiatric disorders as an alternative to drug therapies.

Probiotics - Probiotics are live bacteria that are either the same as or similar to microorganisms found naturally in the human body that are beneficial to health.  Human digestive systems normally have what we would call "good" bacteria and "bad" bacteria.  Maintaining the correct balance between the "good" bacteria and the "bad" bacteria is necessary for optimal health. Things like medications, diet, diseases, age, and the environment can upset that balance. Probiotics are available to consumers in dietary supplements, yogurts, and other drinkable products typically found in refrigeration.

Pycnogenol – Pycnogenol is a dietary supplement derived from the pine bark of a tree known as Pinus pinaster, which grows in France.  Pine bark extract contains proanthocyanins, which are antioxidants.   Research studies indicate that pycnogenol functions as an antioxidant in the body contain anti-inflammatory properties and widens blood vessels.

Red Yeast Rice – Red yeast rice is a traditional Chinese culinary and medicinal product. Red yeast rice is used as an alternative to various drugs that help lower blood levels of cholesterol and related lipids and may have the same side effects as certain cholesterol-lowering drugs.  Some red yeast rice products contain monacolin K, which is chemically identical to the active ingredient in the cholesterol-lowering drug lovastatin.  Since the active ingredients are identical, consumers should use caution as there may be both interactions and unwanted, adverse side effects.

SAMe – SAMe is the acronym for S-Adenosyl-L-Methionine.  It is naturally made in the body from a reaction between methionine, an essential amino acid, and another molecule that carries energy.   It is involved in many different reactions in the body.  Available as a dietary supplement in the U.S. since 1999, it has been used as a prescription drug in some countries of Europe since the 1980s.  It is primarily taken for osteoarthritis and depression and may also positively benefit a variety of other conditions including psychiatric illnesses, infertility, liver problems, premenstrual disorders, and musculoskeletal conditions. 


Words to Remember


Are a type of phytonutrient that provides the yellow, orange, and red colors in fruits and vegetables. Over 600 have been identified. They act as antioxidants in the human body as well as support other body functions.



Oxidation is a chemical reaction that causes oxygen to create free radicals that steal electrons from other molecules, causing damages to cell membranes and other structures in the body. An overabundance of free radicals has been shown to contribute to heart disease, liver disease, and some cancers.



Serotonin is a naturally occurring chemical called a neurotransmitter that relays signals from one area of the brain to another. Produced in the brain, it is largely found in the digestive tract and in blood platelets. Derived from tryptophan, an essential amino acid, it is a critical component for regulating brain functions such as mood, appetite, sleep and memory.

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