Note: Herbs, supplements and vitamins are tricky topics for several reasons: 1- the industry is largely unregulated, 2- many products do not contain the proper amount or form of the beneficial ingredient(s), 3- few people have the chemistry knowledge to truly understand how substances impact the body.
Can the labels on herbal supplements and vitamins be trusted? That’s the question on the minds of many Americans as new research reveals herbal supplements sold at popular retail chains may not contain the herbs listed on their labels. This raises two big questions:
How can we know the ingredients listed on the labels are accurate? And even if they aren’t mislabeled, are these supplements actually helpful?
David Hobbs, an integrative medicine consultant and acupuncturist at Cancer Wellness at Piedmont, works with cancer patients to develop supplement and vitamin regimens during and after cancer treatment. Hobbs says he isn’t surprised by the latest scandal in the billion-dollar herbal supplements world.
“This has been a decade-long problem and it’s part of the black eye that can come with this industry,” he says. “It can make people wonder if supplements are a waste of time and money.”
Though there is a big question mark around the safety and effectiveness of popular supplements, Hobbs says he recommends them for certain people – with a few caveats.
1. Research your vitamins and supplements
Do your research to learn whether a supplement is right for your health needs and which form of the supplement is most effective. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.
“It’s all chemistry,” he says. “With supplements, many people are self-prescribing, but no one does that with prescription drugs.”
The vitamins and supplements industry is largely unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), meaning manufacturers of these products have little oversight from the government and do not have to prove their products contain what is listed on the label.
And even if labeling is technically correct, you still may not get enough of the substance to benefit your body. For example, 100 milligrams of magnesium could mean the pill or capsule weighs 100 milligrams, not that 100 milligrams are absorbed by the body.
There is also the risk of taking a supplement that contains unlisted contaminants (such as wheat, beans and rice) that can trigger a reaction for those with allergies.
2. Find good resources for supplements
Hobbs recommends the following resources:
The Encyclopedia of Nutritional Supplements by Michael T. Murray, available at most book stores and online. “He is well-known in this business and his recommendations are based on science. The book can tell you the best forms, dosage, usage and what to avoid. It’s a very good reference to have.”
Natural Medicines, which is a $200/year subscription service that provides information on dietary supplements, natural medicines, and complementary alternative and integrative therapies.
3. Choose reputable brands
Choose reputable brands or companies that are medically- and scientifically-oriented in formulation and keep up with the latest research.
“There are legitimate companies that have good R&D departments,” says Hobbs. “They know what is recognized by the body and what is absorbed. Most common, cheaply manufactured brands aren’t going to use higher quality forms of these substances. Designs for Health, Enzymatic Therapy and Jarrow Formulas are all good brands."
Hobbs cautions against buying supplements from a practitioner, such as a chiropractor or acupuncturist.
“If they are selling it, they are likely making money from it,” he explains.
For this reason, he doesn’t sell supplements to his clients. He writes down his recommendations and clients make purchases independently.
4. Expect to pay more for quality products
Read: A $5 bottle with a six-month supply of capsules may not contain the best ingredients.
“These aren’t paper towels – they’re chemicals. You may not be getting the health benefits because there are not enough active ingredients,” he cautions. “If you take all the wrong forms or not enough, then your body is not going to benefit. If you take the right product and form readily absorbed by the body, you’ll get a benefit.”
5. Understand the limitations
“A good diet is important,” says Hobbs. “A multivitamin is a backup to a good diet.”
That said, there is a real benefit to taking herbal supplements and vitamins when taken in the right dosage and form, says Hobbs.
“I’ve been doing this for too long to not see when taken correctly, vitamins and supplements can offer tremendous benefits,” he says. “I hope this news causes people to turn to legitimate sources of information. Be proactive. Preventative health is a good thing.”
Learn more about prevention and wellness.