Herbal Remedy, Lifestyle Medicine, Preventive Medicine

Navigating the Supplement Market: How to Choose Natural Medicines that are Safe, Effective and Affordable

The murky waters of the supplement or “nutraceutical” industry can be difficult to navigate. Unlike the pharmaceutical industry, where drugs undergo extensive testing before they hit the market, supplements are regulated differently, relying on after-market testing to ensure efficacy and safety.

There have been issues with supplement safety including contamination with bacteria, heavy metals, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and other toxins. At times, these products have also contained significantly less (or more) of their listed active ingredients. Less can impact your supplement’s effects; and in medicine, more is not always better.

Luckily, you can follow a few simple guidelines when shopping for supplements to ensure you’re getting a product that’s effective, safe and affordable.

First, know how supplements are regulated

In Canada, vitamins, minerals and supplements fall under the Natural Health Products Regulations (2004). Manufacturers are required to provide information about their product including medicinal and non-medicinal ingredients, potency, recommended uses and dose, and scientific evidence to support claims that the ingredients listed on their packaging works.

Manufacturers are expected to abide by processes that ensure their products contain the specified amount of active ingredient, that it’s of high quality and uncontaminated. Health Canada, however, doesn’t actually perform their own testing or check to ensure these requirements are being followed. Audits of manufacturing sites or testing of products can occur, but they’re typically done following a complaint.

So don’t take a supplement’s approval for sale on the Canadian marketplace as a sign of value. Don’t take a company’s word when it comes to vouching for their products. Look further.

Search for stamps of approval

How can you ensure your product is what it says it is, that it’s safe and without contaminants? There are several independent companies who do the grunt work for you, and you can look for their seals of approval to help put your mind at ease.

NSF International and United States Pharmacopeia (USP) give products their seals of approval once they independently certify the quality and potency of ingredients, and the absence of contaminants. They provide ongoing annual audits and re-testing, periodically pulling products off the shelf for scrutiny.

Emerson Ecologics dubs manufacturers as “gold” or “silver” level partners when they abide by certain manufacturing and testing protocols. Gold-level partners are required to test each batch for purity, potency, microbiological contaminants, pesticides and heavy metals. Ongoing periodic on-site audits and on-site testing of products follows.

Get your money’s worth

Consumer Labs is another independent reviewer that tests products directly at the retail level (off-the-shelf or ordered online). They let consumers know which products pass their tests (and which don’t) when it comes to quality and safety. They also compare cost, advising how you can get the most bang for your buck. Consumer Labs subscriptions come at a fee, but your natural medicine prescriber may have access and be able to provide you with some guidance.

Ask for help

Talk to your doctor, your naturopath, and your pharmacist. Look for seals of approval, even from multiple companies, to ensure your products make the cut. Get to know some brands you can trust. Reach out to a company as a consumer if you have concerns. Take steps to ensure your supplements are serving you well and following that founding principle in medicine: first, do no harm.

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