Choosing a Healthy Supplement

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Choosing A Healthy Supplement
By Helayne Waldman and Ed Bauman

As Sayer Ji pointed out so clearly in a previous article, not all nutritional supplements enhance health, especially if they are filled with "junk" ingredients like artificial colors, flavors and preservatives. The old adage is as true for supplements as it is for most things: you get what you pay for. Buy a cheap supplement, and you are buying cheap ingredients - poorly absorbable forms of nutrients, ingredients that have not been tested for purity and potency, and lots of extra substances that are not nutrients at all.

Below are some common questions we have gotten from clients over the years about supplements.

What's in a label?

RDA stands for recommended daily allowance. Today, most multi-nutrients will give either an RDA or a % DV value on the label as general nutrition guidelines for consumers. The underlying concept is that these allowances should prevent deficiency diseases associated with each nutrient. For example, 75 mg. of Vitamin C is the amount deemed necessary to prevent scurvy. However, it is not the amount thought necessary by nutritionists for optimal health. What's more, such generalizations do not work for some segments of the population, a concept called "biochemical individuality" introduced by scientist Dr. Roger Williams. Williams was the first to describe how differences in individual anatomy, physiology and genetics determined individual nutritional requirements.

TIP: A poorly formulated supplement will have 100% DV of each nutrient. We recommend against this type of supplement, as quality manufacturers know that some nutrients are used up more quickly than others (for example, the B vitamins) and some DVs are set at unrealistically low levels (eg., Vitamin C.) On the other hand, some nutrients may be toxic at doses above the RDA (eg., Vitamin A, iron). A high quality multinutrient will take this all into account in creating a formula that reflects a practical understanding of how nutrients behave in the body.

How do I know what form of the nutrient is best?

All nutrients come in many forms. It's important that you keep two basic principles in mind. First, you'll want a nutrient that's in a form as close to the way nature made it as possible. The simple truth is that synthetic products are far less expensive and have a longer shelf life than natural substances. As such, they are the darlings of the low-price chain stores and many pharmacies. Look for a brand that says "food-based" or 100% whole food. That way, you are not only getting the nutrients, but the co-factors, enzymes, bioflavonoids and other phytochemicals that help the nutrient perform its job better.

Secondly, we suggest you familiarize yourself with nutrients that come in "families", and understand that ingesting only one "member" of the family can be problematic. An excellent example is Vitamin E. Vitamin E actually consists of a large cast of characters: first there are the tocopherols - alpha, beta, delta and gamma. Then, there are the tocotrienols - also alpha, beta, delta and gamma. Ideally, your multinutrient label will say "mixed tocopherols" or "mixed tocopherols and tocotrienols." An isolated form of one part of a nutrient can easily throw the other parts off balance.

It's also useful to know whether the nutrient is in its active or precursor form. In other words, can your body use it just the way it is, or does it need to go through some sort of conversion process? Vitamin B6 for example, is known as Pyrioxal-5-phosphate in its active, ready-to-be-metabolized form. Only higher quality brands will invest the resources to provide the active forms of nutrients when possible.

Finally, if you are seeking out supplements as part of your breast cancer protection plan, be sure that the form you chose matches the form used in the research studies showing benefit. For example, selenium comes in many forms, but se-Methylselenoysteine, (SeMSC) is the form that's shown the most promise in recent studies for cancer prevention. Avoid multinutrients that do not divulge the form of the nutrient they are asking you to take!

How do I identify a high quality supplement?

If you are going to take supplements it is important to make sure that what you are getting is what your body needs. Unfortunately this is not always the case; there are several issue to consider when purchasing supplements. Here are a few of the most critical.


A nutrient is only as good as your ability to absorb it. So it's good to get a handle on what makes some forms more absorbable than others. As we stated earlier, the closer to real food your formula is, the more familiar it will feel to your body. That said, there are a few other basic principles. Minerals, for example, are notoriously hard for the body to absorb in both food and supplement form. It's estimated by Albion Labs in Northern California that typical absorption rates for minerals range from 10-45% . A process called amino acid chelation increases absorption. The chart below illustrates some common nutrient forms, and can serve as a guide as to which forms are preferable.


Look for

Vitamin A

Mixed Carotenoids


Thiamine Hcl



Vitamin D



Folate, Metafolin, MTHF

Vitamin E

Mixed tocopherols, mixed tocotrienols

Vitamin K

K1 and K2


Citrate, Ascorbate


Glycinate, taurate, citrate, aspartate


Se-Methylselenoysteine, seleomethionine


Citrate, gluconate

How many nutrients does it include?

All multi-nutrient formulas will include the basics, but only a high quality supplement will include trace minerals, which play a vital metabolic function. Look for a formula that includes chromium to assist with blood sugar regulation, silicon for hair and nail strength, boron for bone health, vanadium for insulin sensitivity and so on. These trace minerals are of particular importance since they are scarce in most conventional soils. A good quality formula will include these and more.

USP certification

A supplement with the USP (U.S. Pharmacopoeia) designation is of the highest quality. This indicates that the product has met the following standards: disintegration (you don't want your vitamin pills just sitting in your stomach!), strength, purity and expiration (when the supplement will no longer meet these standards.). If you like, you can also request a certificate of analysis from the supplement manufacturer to help insure quality control, and that the label reflects the actual contents. An authentic certificate will give details of the lab where tests were conducted, in addition to the lot number of the product tested. This is a good way to be sure the product is free of heavy metals, pesticides, solvents and other pollutants.

No "junk" ingredients

Avoid products with ingredient names you can't pronounce or identify such as such as titanium dioxide, stannous chloride, and sodium metavanadate, common ingredients in drugstore supplements. Other substance to avoid could include: all artificial colors, artificial flavors, sugars, artificial sweeteners and toxic fillers, as well as common allergens such as lactose, gluten, or corn starch.

Questions for professionals

Some supplement issues need to be discussed with a professional nutritionist or other holistic practitioner. For example: How do I know what dosage of a nutrient is best for me? Your needs will vary depending on your existing nutritional status, your biochemical makeup, and your individual risk factors for breast cancer. Your practitioner may suggest you conduct specific tests that will indicate your need for specific nutrients. This upfront spending can bring large dividends in the long run since you can then be much more targeted and judicious in the use of only those supplements that will provide the most benefit.

Other questions to ask your practitioner would be: How/when should the supplement be taken? How long should the supplement be taken? What interactions among nutrients do I need to watch for? What interactions might they have with the herbs or medications I take? Again, these are issues that are best worked out with a professional who is experienced in the use of nutritional supplements.

In short, you will usually get what you pay for. We feel it is far better to take fewer supplements of better quality, than swallow a trunk full of "junk" supplements that could wind up doing more harm than good. [See: Is your Multiviamin Toxic?]

Keep in mind that supplements, no matter how useful, do not and never will have the same power as nutrient dense, whole foods. They are meant to be used as an adjunct to a healthy diet, never a replacement. Be sure to work with your nutritionist or other holistic practitioner to determine which supplements and dosages are right for your particular situation.

Helayne Waldman and Ed Bauman are co-authors of the book THE WHOLE FOOD GUIDE FOR BREAST CANCER SURVIVORS (, from which this article is based. Waldman is also a holistic nutrition specialist in private practice with an emphasis in breast cancer, weight management, blood sugar control and heart disease, and an instructor at Hawthorn University; Bauman is the President of Bauman College of Holistic Nutrition.

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of GreenMedInfo or its staff.

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Sayer Ji
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