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Miscellaneous Hype
for Dietary Supplements

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Many supplement manufacturers suggest that their products have characteristics that make them unique and/or better than those of their competitors. For example:

Most of these claims are pure hype. "High potency" is a misnomer because above-RDA doses are more likely to cause harm than they are to provide benefit. Nutrients are not "targeted" but are carried throughout the body in the bloodstream and are used as needed. Some nutrients are better absorbed when taken during mealtime, but the time of day is not important. Timed-release supplements are not advantageous because the body does not need a continuous supply of nutrients. Nutrient deficiencies do not develop by the hour-or overnight. Biochemical reactions are driven by nutrients that are stored, as well as by those that are ingested during a given day. People eating a varied and balanced diet will maintain stores that can last for weeks or even years, depending on the nutrient involved. The body generally uses what it needs and excretes or stores the rest.

A few situations exist in which absorption characteristics are important. Calcium products vary significantly in their absorbability. And sustained-release niacin, which can be a potent drug for treating abnormal blood cholesterol levels, is less likely than ordinary (crystalline) niacin to cause flushing or burning of the skin but is far more likely to cause liver toxicity. Some of the above products may absorbed more rapidly, more completely, or more steadily than others. But aside from dosage (megadoses are more likely to cause trouble), such characteristics are unlikely to make much difference.

Many manufacturers feature supplements that contain no sugar, preservatives, or artificial color or flavor. Others are touted to be "yeast-free." These products are an attempt to capitalize on groundless fears-generated by the health-food industry itself.

Some companies state that their supplement products are patented. The U.S. Patent Office does not require proof that a product actually works; the main requirement is that it be different from previously registered products.

Many companies buy their ingredients from bulk manufacturers such as Hoffmann-La Roche and repackage them under their own brand name(s). As a result, many products claimed to be superior are actually identical to competing products.

Don't Waste Your Money

The best way to get vitamins and minerals is from foods in a balanced diet. If your diet is missing any nutrients, it may also lack components (such as fiber) that will not be supplied by pills. If you think your diet may be deficient, analyze it by recording what you eat for several days and comparing the number of portions of food in the various food groups with those recommended in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Guide Pyramid. The American Medical Association's Personal Nutritionist page offers a quick diet assessment test that can be completed in 3-5 minutes.

For professional advice, ask a registered dietitian (R.D.) or physician to help you. Or use the "123 Step" feature of Cyberdiet's fee-based health club. If you have a shortfall, try to correct it by adjusting your diet. If this is impossible, and you conclude that you need a supplement, purchase one whose label lists nothing above 100% of the Daily Value -- and take one every other day. Since products meeting this description can be obtained for about a nickel per pill, this method would cost no more than a dollar a month.

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