How to Choose a Brand of Vitamin or Herb

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Diana Dyer, MS, RD, CNSD
Last Modified: November 1, 2001

This article is reprinted from Diana Dyer's book A Dietitian's Cancer Story, reviewed for OncoLink by Katrina Claghorn, RD, Oncology Dietitian.

The choices available in the health food or grocery store are overwhelming. Here are some general guidelines to help you choose a quality product.

Vitamins and Minerals:

  1. Choose a supplement with the "USP" notation on the label. Having this on the label means the company is legally responsible to the FDA for meeting dissolution standards, which means the product has been tested to ensure it will actually disintegrate in your body. Additionally, this product has been tested to determine that the amounts indicated on the label are actually in the supplement and have met purity standards. Only the term "USP" guarantees that these important standards have been met.

  2. The "USP" dissolution standard has not been tested with "sustained or timed release" products.

  3. Check the expiration date. I have seen stores selling vitamins in a big "2 for 1" sale which were very close to the expiration date.

  4. Take your vitamin or mineral supplement with food. That is especially important with fat-soluble vitamins which need to be in the presence of fat to be absorbed.
    (Source: Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter, November, 1997)

Herbs and other Dietary Supplements

Currently, there are no regulations in effect that assure consumers of either the quantity or quality of herbs or other dietary supplements being purchased. Consumer Reports has published their investigative research showing widely varying contents (quantity and purity) of various dietary supplements bought from retail stores. "Standardization" of a product is optional at this time, and indeed, there are widely differing (and contentious) views among herbalists about the pros and cons of standardizing herbs for only one active constituent. In addition, apparently even "standardized" herbs are not always what they say they are. I found two references which listed brand names of products which are reputed to "truly" supply standardized products, but I can't verify the accuracy of their reporting:
  • Herbal Choice, Botalia Gold, Murdock Madaus Schwabe, Nature's Way, Eclectic Institute, Pytopharmica, Nature's Herbs, KAL.
    (Source: American Health, Jan/Feb. 1997, page 33)

  • Eclectic Institute, Nature's Herb Company, Nature's Way, Penn Herb Company, Ltd.
    (Source: New Herbal Remedies, by Rodale Press, 1997, page 47)
I recently learned of a trade organization called the "National Nutritional Foods Association" which requires its members who manufacture herbal and other dietary supplements to agree to random independent testing of their products for both quality and quantity as part of their "TrueLabel Program." Upon calling them, I found out they would not give me the names of their members over the telephone but suggested that I call each company to ask if they belonged to the NNFA.

This will take some legwork on your part, but may be helpful in determining if a company has enough internal quality control to be confident that outside, independent testing will verify the information they have put on the label. This industry is still evolving and hopefully will move toward defining, implementing, and enforcing standards so that consumers don't have to be in the position of "Buyer, beware," as is the unfortunate current situation. when I have called a couple of herb companies, all were willing to tell me if they belonged to the NNFA or not. All wanted to know why I was asking. If you call the companies yourself, simply say that as a consumer, you would like some indicator of quality control of the products you are choosing to buy. Conveying this information to the manufacturers will hopefully give them the message that higher and more consistent standards for the herbal industry are needed.

Some additional advice I give my clients is the importance of keeping a diary or log of all the supplements they are consuming, including brand name, dosage, frequency, along with recording any signs, symptoms, or changes they might notice that should be brought to the attention of their cancer team members. In addition, if you are starting a new complementary therapy such as acupuncture, meditation, yoga, guided imagery, etc., keep records of when you started that, too, along with any changes you observe. All of this information should be incorporated into your medical records because all of these strategies are contributing to your healing.

It is also advisable to introduce or change only one new herb, supplement, or therapy at a time. I recommend waiting 3-4 days at a minimum. That way the development of any adverse effects can be more easily traced to a particular change or addition, just like with a medication. currently there is VERY LITTLE information available to guide practitioners regarding potential unsafe combinations of medications and herbs. If you do develop any unusual side effects or symptoms, stop your supplements and notify your physician(s) and any additional health care practitioner who is guiding you on choices of complementary therapies.