Question: I recently read a Consumer Report article about supplements and how they do not work and many times can be unsafe. Do you have any thoughts about this?

Answer: Yes, I certainly do!

It is estimated that nearly 150 million people in this country purchase supplements from grocery stores, local vitamin suppliers and online sites. I can attest to the fact that the vast majority of these dietary supplements are useless at best and quite possibly dangerous at worst. Is it any wonder that consumer-grade supplements are under the microscope and stores like Walmart, Target, and GNC are scrambling to pull products off the shelf?

Here is a very basic overview of supplements to help you navigate through a very valid concern. Dietary supplements generally fall into 5 major categories: consumer-grade, generic, natural, professional, and opportunistic. Basically each successive category will reflect an increase in price and to a large extent, the higher priced ones reflect better quality (but not always). In the world of supplements, you often really do “get what you pay for.”

Consumer-grade supplements are often found on grocery stores and drugstore shelves. These tend to be products that are formulated based on the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) standards and are made from the cheapest and least efficient compounds to maximize profit. Often these products will have the entire daily “dosage” crammed into a single hard-pressed tablet. They often have very long shelf lives and are full of artificial colorings, preservatives and lacquers. I refer to these as “toilet-clunkers” because many of these supplements are found intact in septic tanks and port-a-potties with the brand stamp still readable. It’s best to spend your hard earned money on some organic veggies at the local farmer’s market instead of on these products.

Generic supplements are the “house brands” often carried by the retail chains like CVS, Walgreens, GNC, Whole Foods, Sprouts, Costco, Vitamin Shoppe, and others. The quality of generic brands ranges from consumer-grade in the drug store chains and supermarkets to “natural” at GNC, Whole Foods, Sprouts, and Vitamin Shoppe.

Natural supplements is considered lingo for products marketed by companies with well-established health-food stores brands, such as Now, Country Life, Schiff, Twinlab, Solgar, Kal, Nature‘s Way, and many others. The quality of natural supplements varies from fair to excellent, depending on the manufacturer and the product. Many house brands, such as GNC and Vitamin Shoppe, are usually “natural” and are sourced free of artificial colorings and allergenic fillers, and give priority to naturally found components. Not surprisingly, most supplement manufacturers obtain their ingredients from the least expensive source — despite substantial inflation, the prices for most natural supplements are lower today than they were a decade ago because they are being obtained from places like China and India. Determining efficacy (if the product does what it claims to do) is difficult to determine because there is no regulation on the dose quantity or quality of the ingredients in the supplement. Many of these products are obtaining ingredients from places like India and China and they are not always “clean” from contaminants used in those countries. The greatest concern is often heavy metals and pesticides that can possibly harm the consumers. The natural supplement packages may still say “Made in the USA,” while they really should say “Packaged in the USA.”

Professional-grade supplements are generally formulated by specialist in their field of research or interest for marketing and distribution through other licensed professionals. You can generally find these sold in a professional setting such as the office of a doctor, nurse practitioner, chiropractor, nutritionist, or online with an established account authorized by your care provider. Because these supplement lines are sold through a licensed professional, those that sell them to their patients are often able to stand by the safety and efficacy claims of those supplements, as well as assure patients that the current good manufacturing practice standards were upheld. Often times, independent third party testing groups are employed to ensure the quality and quantity of ingredients meets the formulator’s requirements as well.

I want you to realize that the degree of quality, purity, digestibility, stability, bioavailability, and other factors does still vary substantially from company to company among professional lines, too. Unlike consumer-grade supplements, many professional-grade lines often use organically or patented delivery processes to assure optimal assimilation of the vitamins and minerals after ingestion. This is why the price point can be significantly higher. Depending on the desired outcome, the way in which the products are prepared and formulated often determines their effectiveness when used. Professional-grade supplements are very often free of fillers, colorings and stabilizer of any kind- this is makes them generally safer for those with sensitivities and allergies.

Opportunistic dietary supplements are promoted and sold by various multi-level marketing (MLM) companies such as Amway, IsageniX, Nu Skin, Sunrider, and many others. I am sure you have also seen and heard the infomercials being touted on cable and the Internet, too. These supplements tend to be the most expensive and their quality can range from pure junk to very high quality depending on the formulators and manufacturing processes. This is a challenging group of supplements to evaluate objectively so it is imperative to investigate each company or claim individually.

The effectiveness, quality and safety of dietary supplements are important topics and something I deal with on a daily basis. I have seen many people self- prescribe their own dietary supplement products with very limited understanding and knowledge about either the effectual benefit to their health or the possible harm that can be caused. Please remember that any nutrients, herbs or mineral can compete for the same receptors as prescription medications and taking the two together can be problematic. It is important to do your “homework” and seek out the help of a qualified professional before beginning dietary supplements for any health condition.

The information contained in this article is for information and education purposes only and is not medical advice. Do not use this information as an alternative to obtaining medical advice from your physician or other professional healthcare provider. Always consult with your physician or other professional healthcare provider about any medical conditions you are experiencing. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, contact your local emergency services for help.

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