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Updated 11 March 2016

How safe are your vitamins and supplements?

Not all vitamins and supplements are safe to use, not even those that are labelled as 'herbal', an expert warns.

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South Africans must be very cautious when using vitamins and supplements. This is the advice of Dr Robert Delgado, a chiropractor and lifestyle coach. His advice comes on the back of a 2015 New York investigation into the contents of supplements.

Tests showed that the ingredients of some "herbal supplements" did not match the product labels and in some cases didn't even contain any herbs at all. This led to serious legal consequences for some American retailers, who were accused of selling fraudulent and potentially dangerous herbal supplements.

Supplements in South Africa

Dr Delgado says that many South Africans take vitamins and supplements daily in an effort to reach their recommended intake of important nutrients and vitamins.

There is also a rapidly growing market for over-the-counter weight loss medicines and supplements.

Read: How to choose the best sport supplements

Health24's DietDoc, Dr Ingrid van Heerden, highlights that a number of studies found that the most common ingredients in over-the-counter weight loss pills – including green tea, cabbage powder, CLA and guarana – had no effect on weight loss if used without the correct diet. She added that some OTC slimming products have potentially dangerous side effects.

What you should know when shopping for vitamins and supplements

Research is vital when shopping for any kind of over-the-counter medication and Dr Delgado offers consumers the following research tips when choosing supplements:

  • Has the product been tested by independent labs? Consider the reputation of the brand manufacturer of the supplement and their suppliers to make sure that the product hasn't triggered any health warnings or sanctions.
  • A supermarket is probably not the best place to buy supplements. Rather go to a reputable health shop, especially as the consultants will often be able to offer good advice.
  • If the product is making promises that are too good to be true, chances are that the product is also too good to be true. Do proper research before falling for claims of miracles.
  • When conducting a Google search for supplements containing a particular nutrient, consumers should add the phrases most bio available or most absorbable form to their search keywords. For example, should one be looking for a supplement with high levels of omega 3 their Google search could be most bio available omega 3 or most absorbable form of omega 3.

Not all supplements are effective

According to The New York Times, the chairman of the department of pharmaceutics at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, Dr Ralph F. Shangraw, in 1987 tested the effectiveness of over 80 calcium carbonate supplements and found over half of them to be questionable.

If you are concerned about the effectiveness of a calcium carbonate supplement, try the vinegar test: 

Put the supplement in vinegar, and if the tablet does not break up into small particles in the prescribed amount of time (30 minutes for calcium supplements), its effectiveness is questionable.

If a product takes more than 30 minutes to disintegrate, it generally will not dissolve well.

"It is always best to get our nutrients from whole foods, with supplements only being an added extra, and it is always advisable to consult a doctor or natural healthcare before supplementing one's diet," says Delago.

Read more:

Your guide to banned substances

The danger of added vitamins and minerals in sports supplements

Safe weight loss guidelines for athletes

Sources:

The New York Times - http://www.nytimes.com/1988/01/27/garden/eating-well-calcium-tablets-are-not-all-created-equal.html?pagewanted=all, Dr Robert Delgado - www.delgadochiropractic.co.za, Dr Ingrid van Heerden - http://www.health24.com/Experts/Expert/DietDoc

 
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