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All Nutritional Supplements are Not Created Equal

With the increase in the awareness regarding the use of nutritional and herbal supplements, many people are confused as to what products to purchase. It is confusing to read about a particular vitamin and then to purchase it and feel assured you are getting the same product referred to in your studies. One problem I see with the vitamin industry is that many companies are using research to back their claims about a specific substance that come from other companies or independent studies, and they use this information to sell their product which may not be the exact same substance used in the study.

A good example is the use of the herb gingko biloba. When you read about the benefits of this particular herb, the information comes from a research project funded by a phyto pharmaceutical company in Germany. The product is called GBE 761, and it is sold under a trade name. How do you know that you are purchasing that exact substance used in the research when you are buying gingko biloba? Most often you will not know unless informed. That is the purpose of this article to help give you some pointers and guidelines when purchasing supplements. My belief is that you want to get results, so consumers beware.

Most supplement manufacturers are reliable and honest, and they depend on good results with their products simply because they want to see repeat sales. Most companies follow GMP’s (Good Manufacturing Practices), and this is your assurance that the label is correct and that it has been tested for bioavailability. However, the standards under which a vitamin or mineral is manufactured vary greatly. A manufacturer can create a tablet that looks identical to a quality product, but it is just a replica.

The following are some of the government standards related to vitamin manufacturing:

  • A consumer would assume that a vitamin contains the potency listed on the label: The government states only 90% of the potency listed on the label has to be in a product at the time of shipping.
  • A vitamin starts to lose potency the minute it’s made. If not produced properly, a vitamin can lose up to 50% of its potency by the time you purchase it: There are only minimal guidelines, not requirements, regarding product storage (light, temperature, moisture, etc.), inventory rotation, article granulation or product coating, all of which affect the potency and quality.
  • After a vitamin is made, companies are not required to conduct shelf-life testing to see how the products potency is affected over time.
  • There is no law requiring supplements to be tested during manufacturing. It is not a requirement for a company to have a quality control laboratory.

How do you manufacture vitamins without a quality control lab? Good question! Moreover most companies do not manufacture their own products. Another manufacturer makes them. Here is how you check to see if the product you are buying is made by that company. On the label it will state, “Manufactured by ABC Company.” If a company does not make their own product it will state on the label “Manufactured for ABC Company” or “Distributed by ABC Company.” I recommend buying products from companies that make their own line and have met the requirements mentioned above.

A good company will provide independent laboratory assays with their product. These assays tell you the potency; disintegration times once ingested; and the fillers, binders, and other ingredients in the product you are interested in buying.

Another key point to look for is a full disclosure label. This will tell you a lot about what you are purchasing. It should include:

  1. The product ingredients (calcium for example).
  2. The product potency in micro grams or milligrams.
  3. The source of the nutrient (what form is it).
  4. Directions for use. How many to take to get the label potency?
  5. A listing of the fillers, binders, and excipients or any other potential allergic substances.
  6. A code date.
  7. Any warnings or cautions.
  8. Manufactured by or manufactured for.

So what are some of the questions you need to ask to assure good quality supplements?

  • Quality of Ingredients: There are approximately 40 to 50 raw material suppliers to the entire vitamin industry. Everyone buys from these folks, but what do they do with it once purchased?
  • Trademarked Substance Guarantees Quality. Example, chromium picolinate is made by a company called Nutrition 21. Any product with that name will be that company’s product.
  • Tablet Processing: Are the fillers, binders, excipients and coatings natural? Many companies use cheap ingredients that are very low cost but affect how the tablet will break down. Some coatings are made from a form of shellac.
  • Manufactured Date. How long has it been since manufactured? The normal shelf life of a supplement is two years, but it can be sold up for to six years.
  • Natural vs. Synthetic: The word natural can be misleading. A good example of this is with vitamin E. A manufacturer can use a blend of 10% natural E and 90% synthetic E and still label the product as natural vitamin E. It is important for manufactures to list the chemical name. Natural vitamin E is listed as d-alpha tocopherol, d-alpha tocopheryl acetate or d-alpha tocopheryl succinate. All synthetic E products are listed with dl before the alpha.
  • Quality. Price is not always reflective of quality: If a price seems too good to be true, it probably is. For example, if a reliable brand falls between $9-$12 dollars per 100 and you find the same ingredients for $4-$6 dollars per 100, you might be suspicious. On the other hand if the same ingredients are listed on a higher priced brand, you may be paying too much. It is important to judge by comparing apples to apples and oranges to oranges. Hopefully, this will help you.

Another question I frequently get is how to store vitamins and minerals. Most products are stable at room temperature, but we recommend a cool dark cabinet away form direct heat. Do not refrigerate them as they will attract moisture and lose potency quicker. We also recommend not buying more than what you can consume within a three- to six-month period of time.

Always remember that a supplement is only as good as its ingredients. When you are looking for results, be aware that what you are taking is the right substance. A good manual to help you is a book by Shari Lieberman: The Real Vitamin And Mineral Book.

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