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Nutritional supplements can vary in safety and quality

In last month’s article we began a multi-part discussion on diet-ary supplements. I specifically discussed who might need them.

This list includes those with increased needs due to their age, digestive health, genetic mutations, dietary restrictions or a confirmed deficiency.

With the question of “who” should take a supplement out of the way, we can proceed on to the “how” and the “what” of choosing a supplement.

How do you pick a supplement and what things do you look for? Several factors go into selecting a supplement: safety, quality, form and cost must all be part of the equation.

Safety and quality are first on the list because they are the most important. If you don’t have these, you have nothing. You may as well nibble your dollar bills each day because you will be wasting your money (and potentially cause harm to yourself)!

Think about it. You are asking a small amount of a substance (a little pill, powder or capsule) to DO something powerful for you. So make sure that it’s the real deal, with no junk included. Otherwise, how do you expect it to do its job?

One way to check for safety quickly is to check the label for a USP symbol. USP stands for the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention. It sets standards for the identity, strength, quality, and purity of dietary supplements worldwide. Looking for this symbol on the label may help you weed out supplements of inferior quality containing potentially dangerous fillers.

While the USP symbol can indicate overall safety and a measure of quality, it doesn’t tell you how absorbable any of the nutrients are. Comparing supplement labels can be confusing when one realizes there are at least two or three different forms of each type of nutrients: cobalamin or methylcobalamin; magnesium citrate, malate or oxide; international units (IUs), milligrams, colony forming units (CUs)….confusing!

Here are few guidelines for basic quality:

In a multivitamin, a litmus test for basic quality can be the type of Vitamin E. If the label includes the wording “D alpha tocopherol” (emphasis on the D alpha”) then it’s a good, absorbable form. If it just says “dl tocopherol” then it’s a less bioavailable form. If a supplement has vitamin E in the latter form, the rest of the supplement may also be poor quality. You may want to look for a different supplement.

For minerals, the most inexpensive kinds come in the form of “salts.” On the label it will say “oxide, sulfate or carbonate.” You will often see magnesium in the oxide form or calcium in the carbonate form. Magnesium oxide tends to act more as a laxative and is not absorbed as well as magnesium malate or citrate.

Calcium carbonate needs to be eaten with an acidic food or a form of citrus in order to be absorbed.  If you are young and boast of impeccable digestion then these forms may not pose difficulty for you.

Just take them with food. Minerals that are “chelated” (or the above mentioned forms) may be more absorbable for the elderly and those digestive issues. However, they do tend to be a little more pricey.

When looking at supplements containing vitamin D3 vs D2, I always recommend D3. Vitamin D3 comes from animal sources (and is made by your skin in response to UV light) while D2 comes from plant sources. Some studies have shown that the D3 is two times as effective in improving human blood levels of vitamin D than D2.

Determining what form a supplement comes in is important too. Different supplement forms may perform differently and everyone has a different tolerance and ability to swallow pills. Growing up, one of my sisters could take pills dry, without liquid while another sister struggled to get them down after crushing them and mixing them in applesauce.

Tablets are one of the most common forms of supplements. The components are compressed and held together by fillers and an outer coating. Typically, the more bulking in size may make for more difficulty for some to swallow. Due to their high concentration and potency, however, you typically only have to take one pill.

Capsules on the other hand, are generally less concentrated and require you to take two or more of them to get the standard dose. These are smaller and much easier to swallow (and are a personal favorite of mine). They can easily be pulled apart to remove the power contents for mixing with food.

“Enterically coated” supplements have a unique coating that will not dissolve until they pass the stomach’s acid and into the small intestines. The coating gives the pills a time-release action so crushing or cutting these pills is not appropriate or advised.

Liquid supplements are common for fish oil, vitamin D, probiotics and some multivitamins for adults and kids. One word of caution regarding liquid and those gummy vitamins at the store:  While very convenient, they unfortunately tend to be higher in sugar and lower in or completely missing certain nutrients (such as calcium, magnesium, selenium, etc).

Cost is the last piece of the puzzle that is often the deciding factor in whether or not you choose a supplement. You may have nailed down the perfect supplement with all the components you want in the form you prefer but the price is unsustainable.

This is when you decide what you can afford per month, how long you want to supplement, and if you can compromise in some area (a little). I do this all the time.

I have a good-quality probiotic I like to take but it is expensive. I navigate this by taking the full dose more intermittently (or when I am sick or overdo the sugar). Now that it is summer, I have also lightened up on my vitamin D supplement since I get enough sunlight exposure daily.

You can bet during the winter though, I will resume my full dose with religious regularity!

While the issue of cost can be frustrating, it may help you prioritize what is your most important need. Additionally, it encourages you to focus on the food sources of nutrients you may lack.

Remember that supplements are just that, a supplement to what you are already eating. They can be tremendously helpful when there is a deficiency or need (sorry it won’t perform magic if there is no need in the body) but care must be taken as well. There is a lot of profit and not enough integrity for some supplement companies out there, so just be careful that you are getting a pure product. For a list of several reputable supplement brands (both professional and retail) check out my blog at thepantrylab.com

Cathryn Arndt is a registered dietitian nutritionist. She lives in the McDowell Creek area with her husband and owns a nutrition counseling business called The Pantry Lab LLC. To learn more about Cathryn, visit her Facebook page or You Tube Channel by searching under “Dietitian Cathryn.” Find her blog at thepantrylab.com.