National surveys indicate that half of Americans take some kind of dietary supplement, and if you’ve visited your local drug store (or even grocery store) recently you know that weeding out the good from the bad can seem like a nearly impossible feat.
How can you tell what’s really in that capsule, pill or gel cap? Keep reading for tips on how to choose the highest quality, most effective and safest dietary supplements available.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines a dietary supplement as:
“A product that is intended to supplement the diet that bears or contains one or more of the following dietary ingredients: a vitamin, a mineral, an herb or other botanical, an amino acid, a dietary substance for use by man to supplement the diet by increasing the total daily intake, or a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, extract, or combination of these ingredients.”
Within this broad definition there’s an even broader array of quality standards and lack thereof, which means you could easily be wasting your money or, worse, choosing potentially dangerous supplements if you don’t know what to look for.
Whether you are considering a “natural cure” for a condition you are suffering from where medical science has been unable to offer you help or are looking for supplements to fill the gaps of an inadequate diet, below are some guidelines to follow when deciding what kind of supplement you need and how to choose only the highest quality products available.
5 Steps to Finding the Best Supplements for Optimal Health
- Become an Educated Consumer
Unlike for prescription drugs, the FDA doesn’t play a role in approving new supplements before they are released to the market nor do they determine if these supplements offer any benefits. In short, once a dietary supplement is released to the market, the FDA is responsible for keeping watch on its safety and if it deems a product as unsafe it has the authority to take action against the manufacturer by issuing a warning or having the product removed from the market.
Again, prior government approval is not required for manufacturers to launch new products onto the market, which means virtually anything goes and action is not usually taken until numerous customer complaints and health effects have already been reported.
Further, the manufacturers are the ones responsible for ensuring the safety of their own products and listing an accurate “Supplement Facts” label. Although manufacturers are required to use “Good Manufacturing Practices” (GMPs), it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the product is safe and effective.
The result is that some herbal supplements are pure and in the exact doses listed on their labels, while others may not be the highest quality or may not contain the amount the label states. Some may even contain harmful substances not listed on their labels.
- If the Claims Sound Too Good to be True …
Labels that boast spectacular promises like “guaranteed dramatic weight loss,” “gives you non-stop energy” or “acts as a cure for cancer” often turn out to be unfounded. Yet more reasonable claims for certain vitamins and minerals such as ginger for nausea, Q10 for migraines, Echinacea to prevent colds, gingko biloba to improve memory and flaxseed to lower cholesterol are supported by ongoing research and studies.
How can you determine the fact from the hype?
- Think like a scientist and look up research findings — You’ll want to be sure you are checking reputable websites. Two good websites to have on hand are the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the Office of Dietary Supplements. Both contain a vast amount of detailed information, including clinical studies to help you become an informed consumer about dietary supplements. Remember the motto “if in doubt, check it out” when it comes to supplement label claims.
- Don’t hesitate to call the manufacturer or distributor — When you call, ask to talk to someone knowledgeable about the product who can answer questions or concerns you have about its safety. You can also ask for research studies where claims of the supplements are substantiated.
- Keep abreast on the latest news alerts and health advisories — For a list of dietary supplements that are currently under regulatory review or that have been reported to cause adverse side effects go to MedWatch, the FDA safety information and adverse event reporting program that provides new safety information on human drugs, medical devices, vaccines and other biologics, dietary supplements, and cosmetics. The alerts contain actionable information that may impact both treatment and diagnostic choices for healthcare professionals and patient.
- For instance, in January 2011 Celerite Slimming Capsules — a dietary supplement for weight loss — were found to contain sibutramine, a controlled substance that was withdrawn from the market in October 2010 for safety reasons. So by checking MedWatch periodically you can at least avoid any dangerous supplements that the FDA has caught on to.
- Always consult with your doctor or dietician — Before you decide to start taking any kind of dietary supplement, discuss it with your doctor to determine appropriate doses and possible interactions with other medications you may be taking. Your health care provider can also point you to the latest medical research about the supplements themselves.
- Take Supplements as Recommended and Watch out for “Megadose” Supplements
Too much of a good thing isn’t always the best for you and this applies to vitamins and minerals, even though they are considered two of the safest and thoroughly studied supplements available. Instances of adverse reactions from overdosing on vitamins and minerals include:
- A double dose of the daily value of vitamin A can increase the risks of birth defects and liver damage
- Exceeding the recommendation for calcium can impair the absorption of minerals and can cause kidney stones
- A zinc overdose can reduce immune function and good cholesterol levels, and alter iron function and copper levels
- Taking too much iron can lead to liver problems, accumulation of fluid in the lungs, fatigue, headache, low blood sugar, coma and testicular problems in men
To get the optimal benefits of supplements use the below guidelines as a rule of thumb:
- Take the supplements as instructed — This means do not exceed the recommended dosages or take the supplement for longer than recommended on the label.
- Stay away from supplements that boast extra-high amounts or “megadoses” — When shopping for your supplements look for those that provide 100 percent of the Daily Value (DV) of all the vitamins and minerals and steer clear of those boasting 500 percent of the DV for one vitamin and only 20 percent of the DV for another. The one exception to this rule is calcium that doesn’t provide 100 percent of the DV because the pills would be impossibly large to swallow.
- Keep a log of all the supplements you take — Write down all of your supplements, how long you’ve been taking them and the affects they have been having on your body to assess the effectiveness.
The watchdog duties of the FDA in terms of ingredient labels on supplements are to ensure that there is an ingredient label and that’s it. They don’t play a role in verifying the information or monitoring the manufacturing process.
One way to pick up where the FDA’s duties stop is by looking for products with “USP Verified” on their labels. This acts as stamp of approval ensuring that the supplement meets the standards for strength, purity, disintegration and dissolution established by the testing organization U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP).
All of the information and numbers on dietary supplement labels can be a very confusing and daunting task to figure out. The following tips break down the supplement labels for you and give you some ideas on what to look for and key areas to zone in on.
- “% of Daily Value” or “DV” — The FDA recommends a daily intake for certain nutrients, and the Percent Daily Value (PDV) will tell you what percentage of the recommended daily intake for adults is provided by the supplement. These recommendations are based on two sets of references: Daily Reference Values, or DRVs, and Reference Daily Intakes, or RDIs.
- “Serving Size”–This instructs you how many of the tablets, soft-gels or capsules need to be taken a day to get the full percent of daily value listed on the label.
- Units of measure — the standard reference units for each kind of nutrient. Here are some abbreviation examples:
- “mg” stands for milligrams, or one-thousandths of a gram
- “mcg” stands for micrograms, or one millionths of a gram
- “Other ingredients” — Compounds that help functions such as tablet integrity, proper digestion or preservation of shelf life.
- The abbreviation “EXP” — refers to the expiration date, after which the supplements have lost their potency and no longer have the listed percent of DV. Don’t’ purchase a supplement if it doesn’t have an expiration date and throw out supplements after they’ve reached their expiration date.
- “Note” — These are warnings of adverse side effects to certain groups of people such as pregnant or lactating women, people with allergies, or those taking certain medications that could experience negative interactions.
- Information on the manufacturer such as the name of the company and its headquarters’ location are on the bottle. Be extra cautious when you come across supplements manufactured outside of the United States as some toxic ingredients have been found in supplements manufactured in other countries, particularly China, India and Mexico.
Getting Your Vitamins Through Whole Foods
When choosing supplements look for those made from whole-food ingredients, which will most closely mimic the nutrients you’d receive by eating healthy foods.
Since dietary supplements can’t replicate all of the benefits you would get from whole food sources, it’s important to be aware of the nutritional value of eating a healthy and well balanced diet containing fruits and vegetables.
Three Benefits to Eating Whole Foods for Your Nutritional Needs:
- Packed with nutrition — Each fruit and vegetable you eat contains several micronutrients to meet your body’s needs. For example, when you eat an orange you are not only getting vitamin C but also beta carotene, calcium and other nutrients.
- Fulfill your fiber needs — Fiber is a staple in healthy diets and many whole foods contain a great source of this key nutrient. Fiber helps manage constipation and can help prevent many serious health conditions such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
- Provides your body with a wall of protection — Fruits and vegetables contain natural health compounds to optimize your health. The naturally occurring food substances in fruits and vegetables called phytochemicals help protect you from cancer, heart disease, diabetes and blood pressure while their antioxidant properties work to slow down oxidative stress, which leads to cell and tissue damage.
When choosing supplements, too, it’s important to look for those that are whole-food based, as opposed to synthetic. Whole food supplements are made by concentrating foods for use in supplements. When processed correctly, they supply a multitude of the plant’s components that will work together synergistically, similar to eating the whole food itself.
Look for high-quality supplements like those from Standard Process, available from your health care provider only, which contain unique combinations of whole foods (whole plants, animal tissue extracts and concentrates, and botanicals), providing essential vitamins, phytonutrients, and minerals to support optimal health.
Dietary Supplements Benefit Those with Certain Health Conditions or Diet Deficiencies
Some groups of people are more prone than others to needing dietary supplements because of either the inability to eat enough healthy foods to get all of the needed nutrients in their diet or as a result of health conditions where nutritional needs cannot be met through diet alone.
If you answer yes to one of the below questions, then dietary supplements may be beneficial to you to compensate for your nutritional deficiency areas:
- Do you eat less than 1,600 calories a day?
- Are you a vegan or a vegetarian who eats a limited variety of foods?
- Are you pregnant, trying to get pregnant or breast-feeding?
- Are you a woman who experiences heavy bleeding during your menstrual period?
- Are you a postmenopausal woman?
- Do you have a medical condition that affects how your body absorbs, uses or excretes nutrients, such as chronic diarrhea, food allergies, food intolerance or a disease of the liver, gallbladder, intestines or pancreas?
- Have you had surgery on your digestive tract and are not able to digest and absorb nutrients properly?
When deciding to use dietary supplements remember to first assess your needs, evaluate the quality of the supplements and then talk to your health care provider to discuss their impact on your overall health regime.