How to separate the good natural health product wheat from the chaff.

Let’s be honest, not all supplements are created equal. Some deliver on their claims, while others totally let you and your chequebook down.

It seems as if every few years or so I hear one study or another denouncing the efficacy of some dietary supplements, which can cast a shadow of doubt over the entire industry. So what is a consumer to do in a world full of potentially deceptive claims, false advertising and weak ingredients?

First of all, it’s time we become just as savvy about our supplements as we are about the food we eat. Just like our food, supplements vary in quality and nutrient values and it’s up to us to do the research so we can make a proper investment in our health and wellbeing. Yes, I said investing! It’s not as simple as grabbing your any old bottle and heading for the checkout. It’s going to require some thought and research to be sure what you’re purchasing is of value.

Gregg Gies, CEO of NutriSearch, a Canadian corporation specializing in vitamins and supplementation research, knows his stuff when it comes to dietary supplements. Right off the bat he confirms that the price tag is one of the telltale factors of a product’s quality. “It’s very difficult for a low-price supplement to have a wide variety of nutrients in it,” says Gies.

In his work, Gies has examined over 120 of the ingredients that can be found in a multivitamin. “A less expensive supplement is more likely to just have a few B-vitamins, some vitamin E and C, and a few minerals like iron, magnesium and calcium, but not the full range,” he says. “There are thousands of essential nutrients that the body needs daily and less expensive vitamins aren’t likely to have very many of them.”

Alright, so now we’ve established that price is a relevant issue, but how do we go about deciding which brands to buy? Not always the popular brands that you see in commercials or on billboards, that’s for sure. Gies cites one of the high- est-selling multivitamin brands in the entire world, as an example. “It has a multi-million dollar advertising budget, so the money is being spent on promoting the product rather than researching what the body really needs,” he says.

Although Gies refuses to endorse any supplement brand outright, he has contributed to NutriSearch’s highly influential book Comparative Guide to Nutritional Supplements, now in its 5th edition, which ranks supplement brands based on their efficacy.

“We don’t endorse any particular company, but USANA, which is a multi-level marketing company and Douglas Laboratories, which is sold only through doctors’ offices, have always rated very well in our guides,” he says. “The multi-level marketing companies often have a high quality product because they don’t have to worry about market- ing in a drugstore competing with $4 products. They rely on membership rather than media advertising.”

Ok, so looking at some of the larger supplement brands with a skeptical eye might be helpful, but what do we look for when we do find a supplement that appears to be worthwhile?

Gies says that looking at the certifi- cations on a supplement’s packaging is a good start. There are a couple of major organizations, the Nation- al Sanitation Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), that certify products. “Those are two labels that you really want to look for,” he says as both organisations test all of the products they certify.

Gies also makes it clear that in Canada we can be confident that a supplement is safe “as long as it has a Natural Product Number (NPN) on it, but I would still look for external certification as well because it does provide extra comfort when looking for a product.”

If you haven’t heard of an NPN before, it’s an eight-digit certification code that all natural health products sold in Canada must have. It proves that Health Canada has tested the product and that its claims and ingredients are verified. By contrast, Gies calls our American neighbours a “wild west” when it comes to supplement testing by the Food and Drug Administration.

As for the potency of a product’s ingredients, Gies says that we should try to get our vitamins in as natural a form as possible. There are a lot of synthetic ingredients and vitamins out there, which help to reduce the price. No two ways about it, price point is a major indicator of whether you’re getting the best bang for your buck.

Gies also reveals that new research concerning the amounts of antioxidants in supplements shows that too high a level of antioxidants can cause an oxidative effect that negates the benefits of even taking a supplement. This new research is something that will be published in the upcoming sixth edition of the Comparative Guide to Nutritional Supplements and goes to show thatmoderation is key, even in natural health products.

With all of this information, all I can say is that I’m happy to live in a country where testing is regulated and a bit of reading goes a long way in ensuring I’m getting the best product. Now let’s take that helpful dose of savoir-faire with us on our next trip down the supplement aisle and separate the real from the fake. Happy hunting!

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