The Differences of Nutraceutical and Dietary Supplements for Joints

Many products are marketed as being beneficial for arthritis and joint health. Some are dietary supplements, while others are classified as functional foods (a food product consumed as part of the daily diet that may offer benefit beyond nutrition), or nutraceuticals.

Pile of Nutraceuticals for osteoarthritis
Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

Unlike prescription medications, dietary supplements, functional foods, and nutraceuticals are not regulated by the FDA.

What Is a Nutraceutical?

A nutraceutical is a food or food component that claims to have health benefits, including treatment and prevention of disease. In 1989, Stephen DeFelice, M.D., derived the term "nutraceutical" from "nutrition" and "pharmaceutical." Basically, it's used as a marketing term.

What Is a Dietary Supplement?

Glucosamine, chondroitin, and MSM are popular dietary supplements that are touted as beneficial for joint health.

As defined by Congress in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which became law in 1994, a dietary supplement is a product (other than tobacco) that is intended to supplement the diet; contains one or more dietary ingredients (vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, and other substances); is intended to be taken orally, and is labeled on the front panel as being a dietary supplement.

How Nutraceuticals Differ From Dietary Supplements

Nutraceuticals do more than just supplement the diet. They, as was pointed out, help with disease prevention and treatment. Theoretically, the appeal of nutraceuticals has to do with accomplishing treatment goals without side effects.

Using glucosamine as an example, by promoting joint health, it would seem by definition that it is more of a nutraceutical than a dietary supplement. Are we essentially splitting hairs over terminology? Apparently so.

The Merck Manual states, "The most commonly used alternative therapy is dietary supplements, which include medicinal herbs and nutraceuticals." This is an example of how nutraceuticals and dietary supplements often are lumped together.

Dietary Supplementation in People With Arthritis

Researchers analyzed survey results from over 4,600 study participants involved with the 2011-2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. More than 62 percent of adults reported that they take at least one dietary supplement.

Among people with arthritis, supplement use was most prevalent among those 50 years old and older, non-Hispanic white people, and those with more education, as well as people who had health insurance. Glucosamine with or without chondroitin was the most commonly used supplement for joint health related to arthritis.

While traditional treatment for osteoarthritis typically involves the use of anti-inflammatory medications, analgesic medications, surgery, as well as focusing on healthy body weight and regular physical activity, the nutritional and dietary interventions are an increasingly popular complementary approach—especially among those who prefer non-pharmacologic treatment options.

Nutraceuticals seem to play a role in processes that affect articular cartilage. In osteoarthritis, the structural integrity of cartilage is impaired. Nutraceuticals may play a role in the balance of anabolic (build-up) and catabolic (break down) signals in joints.

Types of Nutraceuticals Used for Osteoarthritis

Some of the nutraceuticals used for osteoarthritis include:

  • Fish oil
  • GAGs (glucosamine sulfate, chondroitin sulfate, and hyaluronic acid)
  • Olive oil
  • Methionine
  • Undenatured Type II Collagen
  • Various botanical extracts

A Word From Verywell

As a consumer, here's what you need to know: In the United States, you will see reference to dietary supplements. That term is essentially interchangeable with the term nutraceutical. Always consult with your healthcare provider before trying any product labeled either as a dietary supplement or nutraceutical. Because of their popularity, healthcare providers must be ready to answer your questions about potential side effects, as well as expected benefits.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Aronson JK. Defining 'nutraceuticals': neither nutritious nor pharmaceuticalBr J Clin Pharmacol. 2017;83(1):8–19. doi:10.1111/bcp.12935

  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health. Dietary supplements.

  3. Shane-McWhorter S. Merck Manual consumer edition: Overview of dietary supplements.

  4. Wilson PB. Dietary supplementation is more prevalent among adults with arthritis in the United States population. Complement Ther Med. 2016;29:152-157. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2016.10.004

  5. Castrogiovanni P, Trovato FM, Loreto C, Nsir H, Szychlinska MA, Musumeci G. Nutraceutical supplements in the management and prevention of osteoarthritisInt J Mol Sci. 2016;17(12):2042. doi:10.3390/ijms17122042

By Carol Eustice
Carol Eustice is a writer covering arthritis and chronic illness, who herself has been diagnosed with both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.