Quality Matters

Editor’s Note: The purpose of this article is to explain how quality differs between products and to give you some resources to help you choose supplements that are right for you. Of course, it is important to meet your nutrients through a healthy diet first, but if you think a supplement is necessary, then read on.

Dietary supplements have become mainstream, with approximately 77% of Americans taking them, according to the Council for Responsible Nutrition. The most popular dietary supplements are the multi-vitamin, vitamin D, C, protein, calcium, B vitamins, Omega 3/fatty acids, green tea, magnesium, probiotics, iron, vitamin E and turmeric (curcumin).

There are thousands of supplements on the market, each claiming to be the best. Varying factors that define supplement quality make it difficult to know which one is right for you.

First and foremost, you need to make sure your supplement is produced under current, good manufacturing practices. Other factors that must be considered are the form of the supplement, bioavailability (how well the supplement is absorbed), ability of the supplement to dissolve and the inactive ingredients. Check out “Seven Tips to Help You Choose Safe Dietary Supplements” from the February issue of Charm for more details.


Magnesium might be a good one to add to your supplement intake. According to an article published in the Journal of Nutrition, 55% of people are not getting enough magnesium. Picking a magnesium supplement may seem like an easy task until you get to the store and find out there are at least five different forms of magnesium to choose from: magnesium oxide, magnesium chloride, magnesium citrate, magnesium hydroxide and magnesium glycinate. If you are looking for a magnesium supplement to help with constipation, then a poorly absorbed supplement such as magnesium oxide would be a good choice. But if you want more absorption (so it can perform the hundreds of metabolic reactions in the body that it is known for), then there are better choices. Magnesium oxide is found in many supplements because it’s cheap, but it isn’t absorbed very well. Try going with the citrate form, or better yet, the glycinate form.


Let’s say you read somewhere that curcumin helps with arthritis. You decide to go the supermarket or natural grocers to pick some up, and you are confronted with an entire shelf full of curcumin supplements, with prices varying by 10-fold. Curcumin is the active ingredient in turmeric, but it has very poor absorption. Researchers have developed multiple techniques to help with this problem, and in fact, there are about 46 different formulations of this popular supplement on the market. It is important to find a product with some type of “enhancer” or that has been processed in a special way. Two examples are curcumin with black pepper and a brand called Meriva. One study found that curcumin with black pepper had a 2,000% higher absorption rate than curcumin alone. Meriva is processed with lecithin, a special compound to increase its absorption rate.


Folate is a B-vitamin that is naturally present in a variety of leafy green vegetables and other whole foods. Folic acid is the synthetic version of this nutrient — you can find it in processed foods and most multi-vitamins. The body needs to go through several metabolic steps to convert folic acid into folate, and it’s estimated that one-third of the population can’t manage these conversion steps very well. Folic acid is cheap and stable, whereas it costs more to have the more active form. If you feel you need the active form, look for 5-methyl-THF (also known as L-5-MTHF, 5-MTHF, L-methylfolate and methylfolate) on the label.


Some supplements contain whole plants that have been ground up, while others contain extracts of the active ingredient. For example, the active ingredient in saw palmetto is a fat-soluble compound. This compound is extracted from the saw palmetto berry using special processing techniques. For a much cheaper price, you can purchase saw palmetto (fruit) as 450 mg, indicating you are getting the whole berry. For a much higher price, you can get an extract (typically expressed as a percentage). In the case of saw palmetto, most of the benefits supported by research are from the extract. As far as other supplements, whether or not to use the whole plant or an extract will depend upon the plant itself, the purpose and available research. High quality supplement companies will follow the latest research in the manufacturing, processing and dosage recommendations for their supplements.


What is the point of taking a supplement if it ends up in the toilet, unchanged? Dietary supplements that cannot break apart or dissolve in the human body are considered to be poor quality. According to ConsumerLab.com, approximately 5% of supplements tested in tablet form did not disintegrate within the specified time frame. Softgels and capsules performed better and were unlikely to have issues as compared to tablets. Tablets with heavy coating were the worst offenders. Chewable or powdered products dissolve well and can be better choices.


Another thing to take into consideration when purchasing a supplement are the inactive ingredients. These ingredients make the supplement look pretty, help with the flow of production in the manufacturing process, bind ingredients together, stabilize the product so it doesn’t degrade as quickly and bulk up the supplement with fillers. For example, folic acid is dosed in micrograms. Without fillers, your capsule would be so tiny you would barely be able to see it. But some of these other ingredients can be harmful. For example, tartrazine (FD&C yellow No. 5) can cause allergies. Fillers such as lactose, wheat and corn can cause allergic or sensitivity reactions. A high-quality supplement company is going to minimize the amount of these ingredients needed to process and package their product. Other ingredients are required by the Food and Drug Administration to be disclosed on the label. Be sure to look for supplements that don’t use food colorings and fillers.


Before you purchase any supplements, do your research. Know what you want to use the supplement for and research the best form that applies to your unique situation. Here are some resources you can use to help with your decision-making:

• Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center: lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic (free)

• National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements: ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/list-all/ (free)

ConsumerLab.com (less than $4 per month)

• Consult a health care practitioner who is knowledgeable about dietary supplements and can individualize recommendations based on your unique needs