Five Tips on Buying Supplements

Millions of Americans turn to supplements in the hopes of managing a chronic ailment or improving health. But do they know how to buy supplements that are safe, effective, and potent?

"When it comes to supplements, there is no supervisory agency that is looking out for your health," says Dr. Edward Schneider, author of the new book, "What Your Doctor Hasn't Told You and What Your Health Store Clerk Doesn't Want You to Know" and dean emeritus of the school of gerontology at the University of Southern California and one of the nation's foremost experts in longevity and aging well. But that doesn't mean you have to abandon alternative medicine. Explains Dr. Schneider, "You have to do some legwork and be willing to take on an element of educated risk." He offers five tips to help you become a savvier consumer at the health store:

1. Don't expect anyone else to look out for you. When you buy a prescription drug, you know that the product has passed muster with the federal government's Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Drug companies are required to perform rigorous studies and follow up with their products once they're on the market. Manufacturers of supplements, however, are under no such obligation. Because their products are not classified as drugs, they do not need to show proof of safety or potency before shipping their wares out to customers. The FDA doesn't check supplements for purity or even determine whether the ingredients listed on the label actually appear inside the bottle.

2. Look for USP certification. There's no official stamp of approval for supplements, but you can look for certification by the United States Pharmacopoeia (USP), a not-for-profit group. In 2001, the USP started offering supplement manufacturers the chance to participate in their Dietary Supplement Verification Program (DSVP). On a voluntary basis, supplement manufacturers can submit their products to tests that measure the accuracy of the labels and product purity. The supplement companies must also demonstrate good manufacturing practices. If the product meets the DSVP requirements, it receives a USP certification mark. When buying supplements, be sure to look for USP certification. Remember that the USP stamp indicates purity and accuracy only. It doesn't tell you whether a product works or is safe.

3. Shop the major brand names. When you're looking for a cutting edge supplement, you may not find it unless you shop at a boutique health store. But if you want a product that is widely available under several brand names, consider buying the store brand at one of the major drugstore or discount chains. Why? Because these massive companies have a great deal to lose if one of their products is found to be unsafe or impure. Many have in-house quality review boards and bring in third-party lab specialists to test their products. Most of the smaller supplement companies just don't have this kind of muscle to put behind their product, even when they have the best of intentions.

4. Perform a chemistry experiment. No, Dr. Schneider emphatically does not suggest that you concoct your own supplements! But even if you were among the chemistry-challenged in high school, you can easily test a supplement's dissolution power. Simply combine equal parts vinegar and water to stimulate stomach conditions. Then leave a pill in this solution overnight. If the pill hasn't disintegrated by morning, don't bother taking any of the remaining pills. Your body cannot absorb a product that doesn't dissolve properly in your digestive system. And far too many expensive products will merely pass through your body without ever having an effect on you.

5. Talk to your doctor-carefully. If the FDA doesn't regulate supplements, and the USP can't verify safety or efficacy, how do you know which products to take? You can try talking to your health-store clerk, but bring along your good judgment. Most of these folks are terrific listeners with good hearts, but few of them carry specialized training in botany or medicine. All too often, their training comes at least in part from a biased source: the supplement manufacturers.

It's wiser to ask your doctor about a product you'd like to try. However, there is an art to approaching a physician about alternative medicine. Avoid vague questions when possible. Asking your doctor what he or she thinks about all alternative medicine is likely to elicit a noncommittal gesture or even dismissal of the entire field. Instead, ask an open-minded but very specific question, such as, "What does the latest research say about glucosamine and chondroitin for arthritis pain?" or "Is it safe for me to try white willow bark for my back problems?" You're much more likely to get a well-thought-out answer, even if your doctor has to mull it over for a few days and get back to you.

Seek out credible, unbiased sources of information about alternative medicine and learn all you can before taking any products. What you learn may help you ease a chronic condition with the right alternative...or it may save your life by steering you away from a dangerous one.

Edward Schneider, M.D. is author of WHAT YOUR DOCTOR HASN'T TOLD YOU AND YOUR HEALTH STORE CLERK DOESN'T WANT YOU TO KNOW (Avery/Penguin Group (USA); June 2006; 1583332529; $24.95), is the dean emeritus at the school of gerontology at the University of Southern California as well as a practicing clinician. Formerly, he was the deputy director for the NIH's National Institute of Aging. He has edited eleven professional books and more than 180 scholarly articles. He has appeared on 20/20, 48 Hours, Good Morning America, Primetime Live with Diane Sawyer and Larry King Live. Dr. Schneider has been widely quoted in publications such as Newsweek, Time, Fortune, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He has been on NPR numerous times and is the featured medical specialist on a weekly public program in Los Angeles.