The Discerning Consumer’s Guide to Purchasing Supplements

Integrative Clinical Pharmacist Scott Berliner, RPh

Buying supplements can be a daunting task for the average consumer. Yet, it is not difficult to buy good quality, effective supplements if you are well informed.

Supplements should never be used as a replacement for the basic tenets of health. No pill, tablet, capsule or liquid, natural or pharmaceutical, can replace a healthy lifestyle combining proper nutrition, exercise and stress management.

America’s supplement industry is self-regulated; elsewhere in the world over-regulation has made many supplements unavailable to the consumer without a prescription.

Some rules of the road to consider when choosing a supplement:

  • Whenever possible consult a health practitioner who is knowledgeable in the use of natural products. Integrative physicians use herbs, vitamins and many modalities in their practices.
  • Purchase products from reputable establishments. Professional pharmacies are springing up and often employ knowledgeable salespeople to assist in choosing products. Health food stores are an option, but often lack knowledgeable sales people. Also many of the best “medical grade” products are not allowed to be sold in health food stores to protect the consumer from misusing the products.
  • Do not make the mistake of assuming that if a product is natural, it cannot be harmful. If in doubt, do not purchase anything without more information.
  • Many people select natural products under the assumption that they are less toxic than prescription drugs. This is generally true, but they are also not as potent as their prescription alternatives. If you are trying to treat serious health conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cancer, or autoimmune disease, it is imperative to have a professional monitor you, guide you, and follow your progress.
  • Most of the professional companies that manufacture supplements exceed “organic” standards so they may not have the organic seal. Check labels for terms such as GMP (good manufacturing practice) that indicate industry standards.
  • Read the “supplemental facts” on the container, checking the serving size and amount of nutrients being provided, and compare these against your professional recommendations to ensure taking the correct dose. If your physician suggests 200mg of magnesium then be sure to take the number of tablets or capsules this requires.
  • Some supplements are contraindicated before and after surgery, chemotherapy or radiation treatments so it is imperative that you notify your physician of everything you are taking.
  • Serious adverse effects from dietary supplements should be reported to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Anyone can do this by calling 1-800-FDA-1088 or using the MedWatch form available on the FDA website. Always speak to your health practitioner as well to make sure you take the appropriate counter measures.

Internet shopping for dietary supplements:

  • When browsing online, always consider who is running the site. Is it administered by the government, one of the major medical associations or a reputable center that specializes in the integrative approach to health?
  • If the site quotes studies, has the study been reviewed by recognized scientific experts? Are the studies published in peer-reviewed journals? Make sure the studies are current and check when the study was updated. The Internet can be a valuable source of information, but it can also be an easy vehicle for spreading rumors, myths and hoaxes. Beware of statements claiming, “This is not a hoax.”
  • Sound health advice is usually based on a body of research, not a single small study or weak anecdotal information. So when these are quoted, be sure to take them with a grain of salt. If it sounds too good to be true it probably is.
  • n the world of “nutraceuticals” (natural pharmaceuticals), available products are getting stronger and more powerful. Whenever possible, it is important to have an integrative practitioner (link to Dr. Roca’s bio) guide you through the myriad of possibilities.

The Radiant Health Apothecary located at the Center for Integrative Medicine in Cos Cob has a formulary especially developed and checked by me, an integrative clinical pharmacist, for quality and safety. All of our supplements have been verified for clinical efficacy and all the supplements we use are “evidence-based.” All the manufacturers of these supplements have technical people available to verify quality control procedures as well as the studies on which the formulations are based.