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Supplement Sense

by Liz Robins
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Robin Jolin / robinjolin.com

A little sleuthing goes a long way towards developing better supplement sense

Vitamin tablets. Herbal tinctures. Acidophilus powders. The broad array—and sheer number—of dietary supplements on the market can be overwhelming when you’re shopping for natural remedies, whether you’re battling the common cold, trying to stave off chronic disease or seeking relief from any number of other health issues.

Conflicting media reports about the safety and effectiveness of various products often adds to the confusion.

So what’s a health-conscious consumer to do when faced with myriad choices in the supplement aisle? The tips below are a good place to start.


Consult an Expert

A smart way to find the right supplements for your condition or health goal is to work with a naturopathic doctor, acupuncturist, herbalist or other professional. He or she should be able to assess your state of health, help determine the root of your problem or concern and recommend appropriate supplements (at the proper dosage), treatments and/or lifestyle and dietary changes (along with referrals to other practitioners, if necessary).

“It’s important for consumers to seek the counsel of an appropriately trained and licensed practitioner to help them ascertain the safety and potential benefits of any supplement,” says National College of Natural Medicine (NCNM) Clinic Medicinary Manager Micaela Angle, LAc. This is especially important if you’re pregnant or nursing—there’s no ethical way to test drugs or supplements on these groups and, therefore, no way to establish whether they’re safe—or if you’re taking prescription drugs, as some supplements can interfere with medications. A knowledgeable practitioner will help you steer clear of ingredients likely to interfere with medications you’re already taking.

Another benefit of turning to the pros: They’re savvy when it comes to supplement quality and can recommend specific brands most likely to be safe and effective, taking even more guesswork out of the equation.


Look (Wisely) to the Web

If you opt to shop for supplements without consulting a practitioner, it’s up to you to be an informed consumer. The internet is rife with information, but proceed with caution; in addition to reliable sources, you’ll find plenty of unwarranted hype (often intended to sell a product), misleading reports about one-off studies of questionable methodology and attention-grabbing headlines that don’t tell the whole story.

Look to respected online sources to learn about potential supplement benefits, safety profiles and reputable brands. ConsumerLab.com ($36 for a one-year membership) conducts independent tests to find the best quality products and publishes related in-depth reports on its site. Recent reviews include the “Best and Worst Omega-3 and -6 Oil Supplements,” “41 Probiotics Reviewed” and “Multivitamins Put to the Test,” among many others.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (nccam.nih.gov) offers supplement safety information, fact sheets on popular herbs and research reviews of selected studies (not all are supplement-related, however, as the site’s scope is broader). And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates finished dietary supplement products as well as dietary ingredients, provides tips for supplement users and addresses FAQs related to labeling requirements, regulatory issues and other popular topics on its site (fda.gov/Food/DietarySupplements/default.htm). For information on herbal supplements specifically, bookmark the American Botanical Council site (herbalgram.org).


Ask Questions

Although the FDA regulates dietary supplements, it’s the responsibility of manufacturers and distributors to ensure that their label claims are accurate and truthful, and that their products meet the FDA’s Current Good Manufacturing Practices addressing quality and consistency. So don’t hesitate to contact them with questions about their products.

You can ask for information substantiating product claims (studies published in medical journals, or other unbiased sources, as opposed to marketing materials or testimonials), details about tests done to determine safety and effectiveness of a product’s ingredients, reports of any adverse effects and more.

And feel free to ask questions of health-food store staff before adding products to your cart.

“It’s advisable to ask what quality assurance practices the retail store has in place to assess the products of the companies it carries,” Angle advises. The NCNM medicinary (not a retail store) uses a quality assurance questionnaire that addresses the manufacture of products “from the raw material stage through the packaging and labeling of the finished product,” Angle says.


Seek Out the Seal

A third-party verification program seal of approval on a supplement label can be another quality indicator. Look for seals from ConsumerLab, the United States Pharmacopeia, NSF International or the Natural Products Association. When it comes to this tip and the others above, a little detective work can pay off big in terms of better health.

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