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Dietary supplements are a huge industry right now. Many people are taking a variety of vitamins, nutrients, and herbs in the same way they would take a prescription from a doctor.

The problem with supplements is they sort of blur the line between medicine and food as they can sometimes be a little bit of both. Obviously, medicine gets held to a different standard due to the importance of personal health. A Jew doesn't need a hechsher for heart medication.

Supplements though, they're a different thing entirely. While there are some supplements which can genuinely benefit your health and even treat certain diseases, they're only "kind of" medicine. Many are food stuffs or derivatives of food stuffs. That leaves open the question of " when and where does a Rabbi involve themselves in overseeing supplements?"

  • B12 is a nutrient that your doctor will actually give you a shot for. It's used medically.

  • Vitamin D is used in a similar way with prescriptions being given.

  • Turmeric is an herb used in cooking but is also used as an anti-inflammatory supplement for various conditions (Depression, Arthritis, Dementia, etc.)

Is there a Rabbinically verified method of determining which supplements fall under a medicinal category and which fall under a food category (and thus would need Rabbinical oversight) or is the issue one where there exists a lack of a uniform definition?

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    It is a good question and +1 but it is not correct to state that no hechsher is required for medications. I know for a fact that, when taking a drug for stomach issues which contained pork derivatives, a rav told me to find an alternative, and only if there were none could the product be used. There is also a difference between acute diseases and preventive medicing, between caps (containing crushed powder) and gels (which might contain actual forbidden ingredients). All this is worth asking specifically to a rav and shouldn't be generalized here – mbloch Jan 31 at 4:34
  • Besides what @mbloch said, it's also possible some supplements don't need to be kosher. – msh210 Jan 31 at 5:23
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    I agree with @mbloch that you base your question on unsupported premises. It is true to say that the need for medication (Pikuach Nefesh) overrides all Kosher considerations, but it is not a general rule that there's a Halachic category called "medicine" that are exempt from Kashrus. – Al Berko Jan 31 at 10:28
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Halakha does not distinguish between "medicine" and "supplements" with respect to the laws of kashrus. There is a prohibition on eating non-kosher food, but certain considerations cause that prohibition to be overridden. It seems to me that kosher options are always preferable to non-kosher options when all else is equal. However, there are three halakhically-recognized types of illness, which will affect whether non-kosher medicine or supplements may be taken:

  1. Life-threatening illness
  2. Non-life-threatening illness
  3. Discomfort

Life-threatening illness (חולה שיש בו סכנה)

For a life-threatening illness, one can trivially take non-kosher medicine when kosher medicine is not available since this is a case of pikuach nefesh. Seemingly this would also apply to a medication recommended by a doctor to prevent a life-threatening illness that one is susceptible to. (An obscure exception may be medicine derived from an idol.)


Non life-threatening illness (חולה שאין בו סכנה)

Star-K defines this category as someone with a fairly significant amount of discomfort, but who is not in life-threatening danger. Their examples are:

  • One who is experiencing symptoms of the flu.
  • One who suffers from chronic debilitating arthritis pain.
  • One who suffers from migraine headaches or mild depression.
  • A pregnant woman suffering from non-life threatening complications (e.g. lower back pain).
  • A woman who has given birth in the past thirty days without any known problems or who is experiencing non-life threatening postpartum complications. This may apply for an extended period of time.

In such a case, the Shulchan Arukh (YD 155:3) rules that non-kosher medicine may be taken if consumed in an unusal way (i.e. not the way we normally eat things, for example by swallowing a pill whole). There are a couple of exceptions to this cited in the Shulchan Arukh which are not permitted in this case even if eaten in an unusual way, but none of them are likely to appear in medicine that you would get in the drug store.


Discomfort (מיחוש)

The Star-K (in the article linked above) rules that in the case of discomfort (e.g. slight joint pain, runny nose, mild headache, etc.) or for a healthy person consuming supplements, one should make every effort to choose kosher-certified medicines or medicines with all kosher ingredients, even if consumed in an unusual manner. When no kosher option is available, a rabbi should be consulted as it may still be permissible when not eaten in a normal manner.

Still, we live in a time when the strict kosher consumer has many available options, and this is no different when talking about medicine (perhaps this is why the Star-K rules as they do). https://www.koshervitamins.com/ has a huge array of kosher-certified vitamins, medications, and supplements. Also, while many over-the-counter medications are not marked with a kashrus certification symbol, the Chicago Rabbinical Council maintains a list of over-the-counter medications and their kosher status (some are listed as acceptable even without a kosher symbol).

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    Halakha does not distinguish between "medicine" and "supplements" is not a great blanketed statement considering shabbos laws. – user6591 Jan 31 at 19:06
  • @user6591 What do you mean by that? It seems to me that the discussion about medicine/supplements on shabbos should pretty much follow the same principles as for kashrus. – Daniel Jan 31 at 19:17
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    I'm pretty sure Igros Moshe has a tshuva about medicine vs supplements on shabbos and uses the distinction between them to come to his decision. I won't say more until after checking inside. – user6591 Jan 31 at 19:28
  • @user6591 I suppose I could hear the argument that supplements could be taken on shabbos because they are not for refuah. I'm not directly familiar with the halachos l'maaseh – Daniel Jan 31 at 19:41
  • @user6591 I have qualified that sentence in order to get around the question. – Daniel Jan 31 at 19:43
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As you mentioned, the difference is simple:

  • Medicine is what you have to use to prolong your life on a short span (immediate), what's obligatory to use not to transgress Venishmartem (see last chapters of Rambam's הלכות רוצח ושמירת הנפש). This Mitzvah takes precedence over [many] considerations of Kashrus (always consult your Rabbi). This falls under "Sur Merah" category - prevent oneself from sinning.

  • Supplement is what you might use optionally to prolong your life on the long span, it is not obligatory and it does not override any Kashrus requirements. This falls under "Aseh Tov" - do good.

  • so antihypertensive medicines, medicines against hyperlipidemia and antiagregant are not medicines, but rabanim say to take them even shabbat – kouty Jan 31 at 14:10

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