Standing in the supplement aisle can be incredibly overwhelming. If you’ve ever walked in to a health foods store looking for vitamin C, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Sodium ascorbate, calcium ascorbate, potassium ascorbate, magnesium ascorbate, with and without bioflavonoids… who knew there were so many types of vitamin C?! So let’s navigate the supplement aisle together. First, let’s investigate whether supplementation is truly needed and then we’ll sift through the marketing ploys to decipher which supplements are of quality.
Are supplements truly necessary?
Although classic deficiencies of vitamins and minerals, such as beriberi or scurvy, are a rare find in the United States today, subclinical deficiencies are widespread. Subclinical deficiencies are subtle signs indicating marginal deficiency. It’s our body’s way of saying, “Hey! I am getting low on this nutrient!” For instance, long before the loosened teeth, painful joints and legs, and hemorrhaging that appear with classical scurvy, a marginal vitamin C deficiency could show as bleeding gums, easy bruising, or annoying joint aches.1
So, you ask, “We are one of the most well-fed nations, why are we deficient?” Great question! Well, this is an accumulation of the refining of grains, pasteurization of foods, the transcontinental shipping of produce, and the adulteration of foods laden with chemical toxins such as preservatives, artificial color, and fluoride. On top of that, modern farming practices introduce chemical fertilizers and pesticides to farms that deplete soil vitality.
So yes, supplements may be beneficial in certain situations. The emerging science of epigenetics tells us that gene expression can be influenced by balance or imbalance of nutrients, influencing health outcomes such as autoimmune disorders and cancer. But unless we know our body’s specific deficiencies, we are really shooting in the dark. This can actually induce deficiencies because many nutrients compete for absorption in the intestines. Therefore, over supplementation of one nutrient can impair absorption of other valuable nutrients or even mask the deficiency of another. One important question to consider before supplementing is whether there is a reason for a deficiency. If there is underlying problem such as dysfunction in the digestive process (i.e. low stomach acid, poor fat digestion), no matter how much you supplement, the body won’t be able to properly absorb and assimilate the nutrients.
How to find quality supplements
Supplements are a billion-dollar industry and aimed at maximizing profit. Surprisingly, they do not have to go through the same testing as pharmaceuticals do. This means that a supplement can be given a place on the shelf without prior testing. Only when and if there are reported problems is the product pulled from the market by the FDA for further testing. Take this recent incident involving GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Wal-Mart, for example. Only 21% of the products tested from these four national retailers were found to actually have plants advertised on their labels!2
Lesser quality supplements will contain minerals that are not bio-available, cheap fillers that also pose as available vitamins or minerals, or have synthetic forms of vitamins instead of naturally occurring forms.3 Most vitamin C supplements are made in a laboratory from dextrose. Supplements labeled “natural” B vitamins, derived from yeast, may add synthesized B vitamins to the food fed to the yeast and then further fortified with additional B vitamins after growth.4 Even supplements labeled as “whole food” supplements containing fruit or vegetable concentrates often have been enhanced with synthetic vitamins.3 What may be labeled as “Rose Hips Vitamin C”, may very well be made up from refined corn sugar with a pinch of rose hips powder added.1
Supplement buying guidelines:
Always, always, always read labels! Specifically, the ingredient list. Look for real food ingredients as the vitamin sources. Liver, glandulars, herbs, fish oil, alfalfa are all real ingredients.
High quality supplements should be hypoallergenic- free from gluten, corn, wheat, milk, potato starch, eggs, yeast, or soy.
Flowing agents and fillers such as magnesium stearate, calcium stearate, or sometimes ascorbyl palmitate can decrease absorption in the body due to the waxy coating of the ingredients.3
Avoid supplements that contain dyes, artificial ingredients, preservatives, sugars, and artificial sweeteners.
Check to ensure that the vitamins and minerals are in their most bio-available form. Minerals are best absorbed in citrate/malate or aspartate forms. Vitamin E should be listed as d-alpha-tocopherol. For a review of the other vitamins, check out Dr. Maffetone's article.
Find a reliable supplier. Supplements through unregulated retailers such as Amazon may be expired, mislabeled, or stored improperly.
Check for independent chemical assays for purity and quality. Research the company’s Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP’s).
A few other tips:
Tap into Mother Nature’s bountiful nutrients in their whole, complex form by incorporating color-rich organic vegetables and fruits, pastured meats and dairy, sea salt, bone broth, fermented foods, and quality fats into your diet. Supplementation should never replace a nourishing diet.
Supplements I like to take on a usual basis include probiotics, fermented cod liver oil, magnesium (topically), and iodine. According to Dr. Natasha Campbell, “probiotics have been found to increase absorption rate of nutrients from foods by 50% or more.”5
There is a lot to consider and investigate when looking into supplements. We each have a bio-chemical individuality, meaning there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to supplements. It is imperative to listen to our bodies when we are using supplements. Some supplements may be needed during times of growth and healing or as an aid, such as when restoring balance to the body. Other supplements may be needed long-term. Working with a practitioner trained in Nutritional Therapy can guide the healing process and determine deficiencies as well as when nutrient levels are restored.
Amy Gonzalez, RD, LD, NTP
1 DeCava, J. (1997). The real truth about vitamins and antioxidants (p. 7). Centerville, MA: A Printery.
2 Herbal supplements filled with fake ingredients, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman finds. (2015, February 3). Retrieved April 10, 2015, from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/herbal-supplements-targeted-by-new-york-attorney-general/
3 What are High Quality Vitamins, how do I know? Ask Dr. Jean Layton. (2012, October 17). Retrieved April 10, 2015, from http://glutenfreedoctor.com/what-to-look-for-in-a-vitamin-or-supplement/
4 Dietary Supplements What the Industry Does Not Want You to Know by Ron Schmid, ND. (n.d.). Retrieved April 10, 2015, from http://www.drrons.com/dietary-supplements-industry-facts-4.htm
5 McBride, N. (2010). Gut and psychology syndrome: Natural treatment for autism, dyspraxia, A.D.D., dyslexia, A.D.H.D., depression, schizophrenia (Rev. and expanded ed.). Cambridge, U.K.: Medinform Pub.].