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Herbs and Supplements: Be a Smart Shopper

Herbs and Supplements:
Be a Smart Shopper

*DISCLAIMER* All information is provided for educational purposes only. No drugs or supplements should be taken without prior advice from your health professional.

What's so hard about buying herbs and other supplements?
Don't the labels say what a supplement is good for?
How can I figure out what supplements to buy?
Sound too good to be true? It probably is.

What's so hard about buying herbs and other supplements?
Walking into a health-food store that sells supplements is a little like falling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. All around you are bottles saying "Eat Me!" or "Drink Me!" But you're not exactly sure what will happen if you do. That's because all those herbs, vitamins, and other supplements fall into a category known as "nutritional supplements."

These products don't pass the same government standards of quality as prescription drugs. Government regulations do require that manufacturers say what's inside the package on the label. However, because there is so much variation in herb quality, in some cases the manufacturers may not even know themselves. back to top

Don't the labels say what a supplement is good for?
Actually, no. Even though many nutritional supplements may act like drugs, the law regulates herbs, vitamins, and other supplements as if they were food products. And because they don't have to go through the kind of testing that drugs have to go through, their manufacturers are not allowed to claim that their products can "cure" a certain disease, or even that they can treat a particular health condition.

On the other hand, supplement makers are allowed to say that their products can "help you relax," say, or "help maintain healthy circulation." To figure out what these labels really mean, you often have to read between the lines. back to top

How can I figure out what supplements to buy?
Before you buy any herb, vitamin, or other supplement, the first thing to do is tune out all the hype. Nutritional supplements can be expensive, and the claims about them are often misleading. Only a small percentage of the many products out there are likely to offer you any real benefit. back to top

Sound too good to be true? It probably is.
  • Learn about what you're buying before you set out to buy it. One place to start is right here at iEmily. When you click on an herb, vitamin, mineral, or other supplement listed on this site, you'll find information about what that substance is used for, what form of it is best to use, what a typical dosage is, and what side effects or cautions to watch out for. You can also talk to your doctor, nurse practitioner, pharmacist, or other health professional about what brands they recommend and trust.
  • Don't buy a supplement just because it's popular. You can't go anywhere these days without running into ginkgo, St. John's wort, echinacea, and many other "hot" herbs, found in everything from juice to snack food to lipstick. It's easy to feel that because something is everywhere, it's not only safe, it's good for you.

    But think again. For example: Despite what you may have heard about ginkgo helping you "think-o," this herb won't do anything for your memory or your mind unless your problems come from not getting enough blood flow to your brain, a condition that usually affects older people. St. John's wort will not make you happy unless you're already depressed, and then only if it's the right medicine for you (and you use it at the right dose for the right number of weeks). As for echinacea, not only will it probably not keep colds away, but if you use it all the time, it may make it harder for your body to fight off illness.
  • Sound too good to be true? It probably is. Do you really think there's a magic potion out there that you can swallow to increase your bra size? Vanish cellulite? Boost your IQ? All of these claims are being made about herbal products, along with many others that are even more outrageous.

    While it's tempting to believe there's a product out there that can cure whatever ails you, buying a supplement on the basis of an ad alone is only guaranteed to put your money in someone else's pocket. In particular, watch out for claims that a product can benefit an impossibly wide range of conditions—from colds to cancer, let's say. If a product like that really did exist, you can bet it would be the top news story all over the world and not hidden on the back pages of a magazine.
  • Avoid taking combination formulas unless you have expert advice. With the exception of multivitamins, your best bet when buying supplements is to choose a single substance over a combination formula. It can be hard enough to tell how one herb or supplement is affecting you, but when you add others to the mix, it becomes nearly impossible. In addition, some herbs simply don't work well together, while other mixtures can actually be dangerous. If more than four or five herbs are mixed together, they could have harmful interactions with each other.

    There are exceptions to this rule. If you're working with an herbal expert, such as a practitioner of Chinese medicine, that person may well prescribe herbal combinations or formulas. That's OK—as long as you're sure that your herbal expert has enough training and experience to understand not only how herbs interact with each other, but also how those herbs are likely to affect you.
  • Buy reliable brands only. How do you know which brands are reliable? That's a tough one. Well-known brands that specialize in drugs or vitamins are often not the best sources of herbs. And tests conducted by newspapers, magazines, and other sources have shown that the quality of supplements varies enormously from brand to brand, with many products not containing anywhere near the amount of an herb stated on the label.

    Fortunately, an independent Web site has begun testing herbs and supplements to see which brands contain what they say they do. You can find it at It's a good idea to check this site to see if a brand of supplement you have in mind has passed the quality test before you buy it.
  • Check for freshness. When you're buying supplements in a bottle or package, always check the expiration date. Never buy (or use) a product after its expiration date has passed, and avoid buying products that may expire before you finish using them. Some experts suggest buying only products whose expiration date is at least six months away.

    If you're buying loose herbs for teas, make sure they've been properly packaged to keep them fresh. If possible, smell loose herbs before buying them—if they smell stale, they won't offer you much in the way of health benefits, or flavor, for that matter.
  • Beware of bogus Internet suppliers. Buying supplements online is a risky business. If you're tempted to do so, make sure you look out for obvious red flags. Keep away from any Internet supplier that doesn't post its phone number and address—or whose phone number or address are in a country outside the United States. Avoid any Internet supplier that offers to sell you prescription drugs without requiring a doctor's prescription.

    Fortunately, there are some good online drug and supplement suppliers. To find out if the site you're using meets quality standards, look for a seal that says "Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Site (VIPPS)." This means that that Web site has passed standards set by the National Association of the Boards of Pharmacy (NABP). The downside is that all the sites reviewed by the NABP are pharmacies that specialize in drugs, not nutritional supplements, and may not offer the full range of herbs or other supplements you're looking for. They are in the process of extending their product lines and offering more and more, so keep your eyes open.

    Ultimately, the best way to buy herbs and supplements is still to simply to shut off the computer and make a trip to a pharmacy or a good-quality health-food store.
  • Store herbs and supplements properly after you buy them. Herbs and supplements tend to lose their power quickly when exposed to heat, light, or moisture. That's why you should store them in a cool, dark, dry place. If you want them to last, don't keep them in the bathroom medicine cabinet or on a kitchen shelf near the stove. back to top
Last Modified Date: 3/22/2001
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