Sometimes when I’m buying vitamins or supplements, I think about Mary, a woman I knew many years ago. At the time, I was working in the non-profit world at an agency that attracted many volunteers. Mary* was one of those volunteers. Her reason for volunteering a few hours each week was that she had become disabled from a mysterious illness caused by taking a dietary supplement called tryptophan.
L-Tryptophan is an amino acid found in foods. It’s found in turkey in high concentrations, and is partially responsible for that drowsy feeling you get after Thanksgiving dinner. Tryptophan can be taken in supplement form for such conditions as anxiety, depression, PMS, and insomnia. In 1989, an outbreak of a strange illness was traced to the supplement tryptophan. The symptoms of the illness included paralysis, neurological issues, muscle aches, headaches, fatigue, memory loss, and lots of other awful symptoms.
It turns out that the illness was traced to just one manufacturer of the supplement—Showa Denko of Japan. To make a very long story short, the news on this outbreak led consumers to believe that it was due to “impurities” in the manufacturing process. The real story is that Showa Denko was the only manufacturer of tryptophan to make and market a genetically engineered product. They were not required to label their product as genetically engineered, nor did they inform the consuming public of this fact.
Mary, a lovely and gentle woman, had the misfortune to be on the buying end of the Showa Denko supplement. She struggled with chronic pain and fatigue that damaged her health and cost her her job and her active lifestyle as a vibrant and energetic woman.
It is the rare person who does not take a vitamin or supplement of some kind. It is also the rare person who is knowledgeable about the ingredients in the supplements that they take. Here are a few things you should know and check out when you’re buying supplements:
-Quality control. Look for GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) or USP (U.S. Pharmacopoeia) on the label of vitamins and supplements. Either designation indicates that the supplement meets or exceeds U.S. regulations for manufacturing.
-Who made it? The label should say “manufactured by” not “manufactured for”. This is a subtle difference, but “manufactured for” means that the job was farmed out to another manufacturer. This increases the possibility of cross contamination, and that the supplement may not be up to the exact specifications on the label.
-Service please! There should be an 800 number that works on the label, so you can call the company and ask questions. The manufacturer should also have a good, user-friendly website that is updated regularly.
-No gifts with purchase. You should know what “other’ ingredients, are in your supplements. That means if you’re buying Vitamin C, whatever else is in the supplement is extra. Some ingredients you probably don’t want in your supplements include:
-Binders in tablets
-Preservatives, especially BHT and sodium benzoate. Ascorbic acid is ok.
-Fillers in capsules and tablets—lactose, dextrose, sucrose, starch, gluten, soy, and yeast
-Also, coatings on tablets are used to make them easier to swallow. Some manufacturers use shellac and call it pharmaceutical glaze, confectioner’s glaze, or natural glaze—yuk!
-A couple of lubricants used in making supplements to avoid include magnesium stereate and ascorbyl palmitate, both of which can’t be digested by your body.
-What’s the date? Oily supplements, like Vitamins D or E and fish oils should have a date on the bottle—either the date manufactured, or an expiration date. If in doubt, use your nose. Open softgels and take a whiff. You’ll be able to smell if they’re rancid.
-Finally, the gold standard for supplements is an independent assay of the ingredients. You can usually only determine if this is happening if you call the company and ask. An assay is a test to determine that what is in the capsule is actually what is supposed to be there with nothing else. Independent means that it was done by a lab—not the manufacturer. Also, biological testing determines what should not be in a supplement, such as contaminants and bacteria.
Believe it or not, there are a number of really good supplement companies out there that really care about what is in their products. You just have to do a little homework to find them!
Names and identifying details have been changed.