Safer Vitamins and Supplements
What to look for
It’s still the Wild West in a bottle. Here’s how to be a smart consumer.
In 1994, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. It’s either incredibly empowering for health-conscious customers, or woefully inadequate, depending on whom you ask. Back when the law was passed, the $4-billion supplement industry only included 600 supplement manufacturers, producing 4,000 products, and less people took supplements overall. Today, it’s a $40 billion industry, with most U.S. adults taking supplements, and there are now 80,000 products, reports the New York Times. Many are safe, and some of us find products that are very useful, but still, the onus is on the F.D.A. to act only when a product is proven to be dangerous. Until then, it’s buyer beware, or, as I like to think, buyer be educated. For this week’s Healthy Habit, I went in search of ways to choose wisely.
Vitamins come in different forms, points out WebMD, noting the several forms of vitamin D (D1-2, D3) as an example. Let’s say your doctor recommends you take vitamin D after your blood test shows you are a little deficient. That’s when to start drilling down: What form? And in what dose? The Recommended Dietary Allowance for D is higher for older adults than younger. Getting the correct form and dose of a supplement is important, so ask detailed questions and take notes.
Think Big Picture
Just because a supplement is natural, doesn’t mean it won’t interact with prescription drugs. Innocent seeming grapefruit juice, which can actually alter the effect of many drugs, including antihistamines and cholesterol controlling drugs. Other examples include green tea, turmeric, goldenseal, echinacea and ginger, among others, according to Consumer Lab, a company that tests supplements. Some products might up the effects of medicine, while others decrease it. Research possible interactions and talk to your doctor, providing a list of everything you’re taking. (For more on this, see “Are You Hiding Your Supplements?”)
Supplements are not a simple thing to buy, and you’ll need to be patient rather than grabbing whatever is cheapest. Diabetes Daily recommends shopping at a small, local health store, or from a qualified wellness expert, rather than Amazon or Big Box stores. Sometimes “deals” are actually counterfeit… yikes. Look for supplements that are lab-tested and made from smaller companies with long track records. Read the label: What are the ingredients? How much of each ingredient?
Can a supplement cure Alzheimer’s or cancer? If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. The AARP notes that we shouldn’t “give too much credence to extreme claims about a product — for example, that it can reduce blood pressure by 60 points or burn 4,000 calories a day of excess fat to promote rapid weight loss.” If we could stir in a powder or pop a pill that really worked magic, wouldn’t we all be slim, energetic, disease free, and have perfect memories? It’s—alas—not quite that simple.
- Independent testing and reporting can be found at places such as Highya and ConsumerLab.
- Which scientific studies will actually tell you something useful? This cheat-sheet from Vox explains types of research and how they work.
- There’s a good interaction checker at Drugs.com.
- Read the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act.
The statements on this web site have not been evaluated by the FDA. They are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or condition. If you have a health concern or condition, consult a physician. Always consult a medical doctor before modifying your diet, using any new product, drug, supplement, or doing any new exercises.