Choosing The Right Supplements For Your Family - from the blog of Dr. Lauren Gouin, ND

Choosing the Right Supplements for your Family

In the sea of supplements offered in any health food store or pharmacy, it’s difficult to know how to choose the right vitamin or herbal supplement for you and your family. Understanding the standards of the industry and decoding the labels on products can allow consumers make healthier choices.

Not all Supplements are created equal

Often consumers will follow the old adage “you get what you pay for” or rely on a brand they trust for products other than supplements. There are ways of distinguishing product quality so that you don’t have to simply go by a price tag, website, advertisement or salesclerk advice.

Investigate the “Other Ingredients”. There often have to be some other ingredients, to help lubricate the machine, bind tablets or encapsulate the product. Additives like synthetic colors, preservatives and fillers are certainly not necessary. Also, for chewable vitamins, look to see what the flavorings and sweeteners are. A small amount of fruit or alcohol sugars are a better choice than other artificial sweeteners.

Be wary of Proprietary Blends. Blends allow sellers be ambiguous about the amounts of each ingredient, often times leading to large amounts of the cheaper substances and small amounts of more expensive ones. The ingredients must still be listed in order by weight, which will help distinguish what is more plentiful in the supplement.

Check out the source. Forms of vitamins can greatly affect efficacy and absorption. For example, calcium carbonate is a cheaper and less bioavailable version of calcium than Calcium citrate/malate. With botanical medicine, the latin name, part of the plant used, concentration and standardization are all important to be listed.

What is the proof that the labels are accurate?

There have been many documented cases of misidentification and or extraneous ingredients in end product supplements. One documented instance that was a case where foxglove, a cardiac herb effective in very small doses, was substituted for plantain and put into a product at much higher amounts, leading to digitalis poisoning. Plant and compound identification can be verified with lab tests done in house or by a third party.

Often products will claim to have a certain amount of botanical medicine or nutrients and have the wrong form, wrong species and a variable amount. Many major studies have been conducted looking at consumer supplements and their labels. The results commonly showed ranges of potency below or above what was labeled, and in some cases very little or none of the correct species.
Concern also lies with other ingredients found along with the botanical or nutrient. Fish oils are known to have potential heavy metals due to their source, but actually most supplements have this concern. The solvents used in the extraction or production have also been documented, such as benzene and acetone.

It defeats the purpose of supplementing your diet if the incorrect amount of the wrong substance is in a capsule with solvents and pesticides.

Seeking out Standards

The good news is professionals are aware of these issues, and several measures are already being put in place to ensure quality supplements.

GMP or Good Manufacturing Practice, a set of standards enforced by the federal government, begins to address the pitfalls in production of nutritional supplements. Companies are held to standards in quality and disease control, receiving and testing of raw materials, and procedures for storage and distribution. Companies having GMP certification are more likely to have higher quality supplements.
Even among GMP certified companies, solvent testing and raw material testing standards are not all equal. Many healthcare providers and companies feel current standards are not strict enough. Third party testing for potency as well as extensive solvent testing is being shown to be necessary to ensure quality and safety. Thorough testing especially of raw materials for solvents and other toxic substances is only practiced by a handful of nutraceutical companies at this time. To know if a supplement company is doing this sort of testing, they should be able to supply information on their quality assurance, with the testing done by either themselves or ideally by a third party. GMP certification is a step in the right direction, but thorough solvent and potency testing is ideal.

The goal of taking a supplement is to improve overall well being. Making healthy supplements, free of harmful ingredients and proven to have the correct amounts of nutrients and medicine should be an established standard. Until it is, it is important to read the label carefully and know the company’s standards.

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Krochmal, R, Hardy M, Bowerman S, et al. PhytoChemical Assays of Commercial Botanical Dietary Supplements. Evidence based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: 2004. 1:3.

Liva, Rick. Are Problems with Chinese Goods Just the Tip of the Iceberg? Integrative Medicine: 2008 7:40-42.

Myerson GE, Merson AS, Miller SB, Goldman JA, Wilson CH Jr. Chinese “herbal medicine” mail order syndrome- a cause of hypercortisonism. Arthritis Rheum. 1982:25(suppl): S87. Abstract A114.

Pioneer Nutritional Formulas, Inc. How to Read a Supplement Label Shelburne Falls, MA. 2005.

Slifman NR, Obermeyer WR, Aloi BK et al. Contamination of botanical dietary supplements by Digitalis Ianata. N Engl J Med. 1998; 339: 806-811.

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