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Issue 29: Navigating the Nutritional Supplement Landscape

Navigating the Nutritional Supplements Landscape

Let’s face it. There are thousands of nutritional supplements on the market creating a crowded and often confusing landscape to navigate. And it’s not to be navigated by the faint of heart--or the uninformed. There’s a lot to choose from and like most people, you will want to make the best choices and get the most for your money. After all, your health is an investment.

To begin with, many people look to Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) to decide on vitamin and mineral dosages, but it’s important to know that RDAs do not account for individual differences and needs. Originally, RDAs were set only to prevent deficiencies, such as scurvy, and were based on averages. These averages, however, do not account for the varying needs of an individual and do not necessarily meet a person’s daily needs. The truth is that RDAs may be insufficient for most individuals, even the healthy. Additionally, the size of the bottle—even the size of the pill—can be misleading. And even the dosage can vary from bottle to bottle.

So, what is known about supplements? Well, there are differences in quality and manufacturing.

Did you know the bulk of supplements are synthetically made—petroleum-derived vitamins plus crushed industrial rocks called minerals salts—topped off with solvents perhaps? You heard correctly.

They are laboratory-manufactured nutrients that are not like the natural nutrient. For example, some nutrients like vitamin E cannot be copied exactly, but their synthetic analogs are inexpensive and so they are used by many manufacturers. Supplements like these can be identified by looking at the supplement facts panel. Also, be on the lookout for this: the vitamins and minerals listed on the label will be denoted by a two part chemical name such as vitamin C (ascorbic acid), vitamin A (retinyl palmitate), or calcium (calcium citrate).

Generally speaking, these synthetically-made supplements fall under the category of USP isolated vitamins and minerals and are cheap imitations of food vitamins and minerals. They are neither structurally nor chemically the same as food nutrients. (Note: The United States Pharmacopeia or USP is the official public standards-setting authority for all prescription and over-the-counter medicines, dietary supplements, and other healthcare products manufactured and sold in the United States.)

The idea behind the USP designation is that the consumer should have a certain confidence that the product delivers what the packaging says it does in the pill or tablet. The trouble is that if the USP states that a vitamin or mineral looks similar—under a microscope or from scientific analysis—to the vitamin it’s purported to be, then it’s one and the same, even if it is not.

And while most multi-vitamin formulas are primarily synthetic, research shows that food vitamins are superior to synthetics. In fact a number of studies conclude that food vitamins and minerals are better than USP isolated so-called nutrients because they contain important enzymes, peptides and phytonutrients which are critical to the utilization of vitamins and minerals and are lacking in isolated USP nutrients.

Next week we will move up the food chain and look at a combination of USP isolates and food powders.


This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.

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