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Natural Health Products – Do You Know What You Are Taking?

Am I really getting what I pay for?
There is no free lunch in the world of natural medicine. Natural health products are expensive to make, prepare, extract or synthesize.  A less expensive bottle may actually contain less of a particular nutrient or contain inferior, less effective ingredients because you get what you pay for, right? When it comes to quality, the rule of thumb seems to be the higher the price tag, the more effective the product.  But, heed caution.  In this market – a billion dollar industry – it is still caveat emptor or “buyer beware.”

To help you decide whether the product you’re holding in your hand in the middle of the health food store is reasonably priced you need to study the label.  First, look and see what the dosage recommendations are.  The product may suggest one or more tablets, capsules, drops or spoonfuls a day.  Take note of the dosage. If, for example, a bottle is 25ml in volume and the recommended dose is 5ml (1 tsp) a day, then this will last you 5 days.  A 25ml bottle with double the concentration, priced equally, and a recommended dose of 2.5 ml a day will last you twice as long. Remember to always check with your health care provider to know what the right dose is for you.

Reading the fine print
You must also be sure to compare ingredients when comparing price.  Natural source vitamins are almost always better than synthetic.  The list of ingredients on some natural health care product labels could tax the mind of even a specialist in the field!  The challenge is to distinguish real values from misleading marketing. Companies may select ingredients or dosages based on: 1) marketing strategies; 2) published research demonstrating effectiveness; 3) experience of skilled professionals; or 4) some or all.

Many marketing strategies (or games) in the world of natural health products may mislead you.  “Label padding” is one of the most notorious.  In order to make the ingredient list look longer and more beneficial than it really is, many product marketers do the following:

  1. Add therapeutically useless amounts of a nutrient or herb. Many nutrients and herbs for example are clinically effective in doses of hundreds if not thousands of milligrams (mg’s), NOT micrograms (mcg). Note: some companies will put doses of 10-50 milligrams in a product just to get it on the list!
  2. Add “impressive” ingredients. When you could easily be getting many nutrients from a good diet, beware not to spend money on things such as minimal amounts of enzymes, greens formulas, or other dehydrated foods which sometimes do not have much benefit.
  3. Omit parentheses. Especially with respect to vitamins and minerals, information which is listed in parentheses immediately following the name of the ingredient tells you the form, chelating material or the source of that ingredient. If an ingredient’s form, chelating materials or source is not in parentheses, the actual amount of that ingredient is LESS than the stated amount. Example: By weight, magnesium aspartate is actually only about 20 percent magnesium and the rest (80 percent) is the carrier, aspartate.  Therefore, if the ingredient is written magnesium aspartate (without parentheses), you are only getting about 20 percent of the listed amount of magnesium. “Magnesium (aspartate)” on the other hand would indicate 100 percent of the listed amount of magnesium.
  4. “In a base of.” Many labels lump additional nutritional ingredients together in a “base.” The label then reads “in a base of…” Notice that this kind of labelling does not tell you: 1) the amount of each ingredient in the base; 2) the proportion of the ingredients; 3) the plant part or other source used; or 4) the potency. It is possible that the base contains only poor quality and inadequate doses of filler powder.

Know the quality
Some companies exaggerate the quality of their products by using just a tiny amount of a nutrient, herb or vitamin from a superior source and a lot of it from an inferior source – but not specifying how much is from each. This is very common with herbal supplements, but it also happens frequently with minerals.

Example: Calcium (carbonate, citrate-malate) does not tell you how much of the calcium comes from carbonate and how much comes from citrate-malate – it could be as little as one percent calcium from citrate-malate, a much more absorbable form.  The label should state the amount or the ratio of each source.  I.e. calcium (carbonate): 400mg; calcium (citrate-malate): 100mg OR calcium (4:1 carbonate:citrate-malate).

So, what quality sources of ingredients should you choose?

When it comes to vitamins, for example, they come from a variety of  sources such as inorganic salts, organic chelates, coenzyme forms, natural and synthetic, etc. Research shows that some forms are better absorbed and utilized by the body than others. In general, natural vitamin E is better than synthetic; vitamin B coenzymes are better than regular B vitamins; fully reacted chelates (ie. aspartates, picolinates, citrate-malate, glycinates, etc.) are better absorbed and utilized than inorganic salts (carbonates, oxides, sulfates, etc.). Look for brands that include well studied and documented forms and beware of brands that contain “fad” or “trendy” ingredients.

But the days of intense scepticism are slowly but surely becoming a thing of the past.  Take a look at the Natural Health Products Directorate, a Health Canada initiative. More and more, we are assured as Canadians that we have ready access to natural health products that are safe, effective and of high quality, while our government respects our freedom of choice and philosophical and cultural diversity.  Learn more at http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ahc-asc/branch-dirgen/hpfb-dgpsa/nhpd-dpsn/index-eng.php

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