Thinking about buying a dietary supplement? Before you do, ask yourself, “Why do I need this supplement?” and “Is it suitable for me?” Think about your typical diet and what it may be lacking. Remember, the word supplement means just that—a product meant to supplement your food. A well‐chosen supplement can be beneficial under some circumstances, especially if your diet is limited. However, if you’re healthy and eat a good balance of healthful foods, supplements won’t help you much.
It’s a good idea to let your doctor know your supplement plans. Some supplements are contraindicated during pregnancy or lactation; others should not be used with certain chronic illnesses. Supplements sometimes interfere with the action of medicines. Some slow blood clotting, which is a concern if surgery is planned.
To a great extent, you’ll need to rely on your own understanding of diet and nutrition to make your selection. And you must rely on the supplement manufacturer for the product’s safety, its purity and cleanliness, and the label’s accuracy. If you’re concerned about potential side effects or contraindications, you’ll probably need to contact the manufacturer or distributor.
The FDA has finalized guidelines for current good manufacturing practices by supplement manufacturers. Until standards are fully implemented in 2010, you can use tip‐offs to judge a quality company—the kind you’d expect to have good quality control procedures and to manufacture, store, and transport products safely and carefully.
A quality company will not promise miracles on its Web site, in catalogues, in commercials or advertisements, or in in‐store promotions. Promises to make you smarter or thinner (unless you cut calories along with taking the supplement), to keep you young, to increase or decrease the size of various body parts, and so forth, should raise a red flag. A quality company will not manipulate statistics or distort research findings in an attempt to mislead you.
A quality company will take care with its labels, print materials, and Web information. Misspelling of terms; confusion of milligrams, grams, and micrograms; and omission on labels of important or required information are indicators of the manufacturer’s carelessness or ignorance.
Finding the freshest supplement is often easier if you shop in a retail store. Avoid dust‐covered containers. Choose a store where turnover is likely to be quick. Supplements should be displayed away from direct sunlight, bright lights, or nearby heat sources, because heat ages many supplements. Expiration dates can also give you a clue regarding freshness.
How easily can you obtain information about the product? Look for a phone number on the label so you can call with questions or to report side effects. On Web sites, look for a domestic address and phone number, in addition to an e‐mail contact. Does a knowledgeable company representative respond to your questions, or is the only person available one who reads a scripted response?
If you’re shopping online but are uncertain the supplement is right for you, check the Web retailer’s return policy. A Web retailer that also has a brick‐and‐mortar outlet near your locale may be preferable.