Dietary Supplements What the Industry Does Not Want You to Know

The following is an excerpt from an article by Dr. Ron Schmid, ND, that originally appeared in the Spring 2002 issue of Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, a publication of the Weston A. Price Foundation.

Much of what we believe is shaped by what we see, read, and hear. The media's message about supplements-those substances regularly ingested as pills, powders, and liquids by over one-half of all Americans in their quest to feel better and live longer-is decidedly mixed. We often read or hear stories about the benefits of taking supplements of vitamin E, St. John's Wort or Coenzyme Q10. Often these stories refer to published scientific studies demonstrating usefulness. A week later, we read or hear a report about the dangers of the same substance, with warnings by a designated expert to stay away from it.

This is not an article about the media or politics, but a few words about what's behind the news and what the media calls "science" are in order. Actually, one word is in order. The word is MONEY. Money vastly influences what is reported and the slant placed on that reporting. So where's the money? Most of the ads on the nightly news now are drug company ads. And newspapers and magazines today are full of drug company ads. This means we should expect enormous bias against anything that would take away from pharmaceutical profits.

To Take or Not to Take
Over thirty years ago, I read a little book called Vitamin E for Ailing and Healthy Hearts, by the Shute brothers. It's still a good read. The brothers, Canadian medical doctors, presented an open and shut case about the myriad benefits of vitamin E supplements. I began taking vitamin E and continue to this day. I also began researching the usefulness of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, herbs, and special foods in the treatment of health problems. A number of these substances are helpful to anyone interested in optimizing health and extending the span of vigorous, active life. Others are appropriate for many people who develop problems typical of our culture. The question is really not whether or not to take supplements. Rather, the questions are which ones, when and how much.

Those are hard questions, and because the answers are different for each of us and depend on individual needs, they can't be fully answered here. But some general questions that apply to all of us can be answered. In this article, I'll address the following questions:
  • What is the difference in quality between one company's version of a given supplement and another's?
  • What supplements are important for most people? Why?
  • What is the relationship between supplements and foods? Can supplements complement even a very good diet?
  • What are some problems people commonly have that can be helped with proper supplementation?
Quality Issues
Most people simply cannot determine what they are really getting when they buy supplements. Among the usually unanswered questions:
  • What are the sources of the vitamins and minerals used in a given vitamin and/or mineral product?
  • What sources are most like the vitamins and minerals in foods, and most likely to be beneficial?
  • Do the herbs in a given herbal product have the potency to achieve the desired result?
  • What are the effects of additives used in manufacturing the supplement? How absorbable is the product?
Sources and Forms
Vitamins and minerals come in many different forms. Some are derived from foods, such as vitamin E when extracted from vegetable oil and vitamins A and D when extracted from fish oil. Others are made in laboratories-they may then be labeled "natural" because they are made from "natural" precursors. Some are combined with dried foods and herbs and called "food vitamins."

A number of forms of synthetic vitamins A and D are used in supplements. All should be strictly avoided-even small amounts of the synthetic forms may be toxic. In fact, the toxicity of these synthetic forms has contributed to the media frenzy about the alleged dangers of vitamins A and D. The media and the medical establishment do not distinguish between the synthetic forms and natural vitamins A and D as found in or derived from animal fats. Decades ago, researchers definitively established the benefits and safety of large doses of natural vitamins A and D. Traditional diets are rich in these nutrients, typically containing upwards of ten times the RDA amounts the government now tells us are adequate. There has never been any indication of anything but benefit from these natural forms of vitamins A and D, including for pregnant women. In fact, these nutrients are particularly important for pregnant women, and foods rich in vitamins A and D were emphasized for pregnant women in virtually all of the traditional cultures studied by Weston Price.

The warnings against Vitamin A usually include mention of Arctic explorers who died from vitamin-A overdose because they consumed polar bear livers. Actually, the early explorers did not die from vitamin A overdose but from cadmium poisoning. They experienced exfoliative dermatitis and hair loss. In 1988, a team of Swedish scientists discovered that polar bear and seal livers tend to accumulate the metal cadmium. The symptoms for cadmium poisoning are exfoliative dermatitis and hair loss. But don't expect to hear about this on the evening news. Rather, expect continuing stories about the alleged dangers of vitamins A and D. The media and the medical establishment work together to vilify the very substances that can prevent suffering and disease.

Cod liver oil is a wonderful supplemental source of natural vitamins A and D. I recommend from one-half to two tablespoonfuls daily of high-vitamin cod liver oil, described later in this article, to most of my patients.

Vitamin E is another nutrient for which it is very important to select the proper form. Synthetic vitamin E is labeled, "d, l- alpha." This mixture of the "d" and "l" forms is biochemically different from naturally derived vitamin E, which consists of and is labeled "d-alpha." Like synthetic vitamins A and D, synthetic vitamin E has detrimental effects. It is incompletely metabolized and may even disrupt the metabolism of natural vitamin E in the liver. The most beneficial natural vitamin E products come as mixtures of the alpha, beta, gamma, and delta tocopherol fractions. I use and recommend a product called "Unique E," made by the A.C. Grace Company, whose only product is this superior vitamin E supplement.

To summarize, the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D and E) should always come from natural sources. As for the water soluble vitamins, there are natural sources that can provide small amounts for general use-acerola powder for vitamin C, for example, and low-temperature dried yeast flakes grown on an appropriate medium for B complex. However, for larger therapeutic doses it is necessary to use synthetic vitamins. How these water-soluble vitamins are formulated makes a big difference in how they are absorbed and tolerated.

Almost all of the vitamin C in supplements is made in a laboratory, despite labeling that implies otherwise. For example, the label might say, "ascorbic acid from sago palm." Dextrose, a form of sugar that contains no vitamin C at all, is extracted from sago palm and used as the base molecular material for a complex laboratory process that synthesizes vitamin C. Or the label might say "vitamin C derived from the finest natural sources." True, but the vitamin C was synthesized. It might also say "with rose hips and acerola," which are then used as the base material for the tablet or capsule. But a tablet of rose hips or acerola can contain only about forty milligrams of truly natural vitamin C; the rest is synthesized.

Pottenger's experiments met the most rigorous scientific standards. His outstanding credentials earned him the support of prominent physicians. Alvin Foord, M.D., Professor of Pathology at the University of Southern California and pathologist at the Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, co-supervised with Pottenger all pathological and chemical findings of the study. One particular question that modern science has largely ignored was addressed: What is the nutritive value of heat-labile elements-nutrients destroyed by heat and available only in raw foods?

Most significant in regard to the form of vitamin C is the buffering process, which complexes a mineral (typically either calcium, magnesium, or potassium) with ascorbic acid. Buffered vitamin C is gentler on the stomach than regular vitamin C, which because of its acidity often causes gas, bloating, and upset stomach. Buffered C offers superior absorption as well.

Labels often proclaim "natural" B vitamins, derived from yeast. But companies manufacturing yeast add laboratory-synthesized B vitamins to the food fed to the yeast during its growth, and then fortify the yeast further with additional B vitamins once it has grown. This allows the production of yeast of any B-vitamin potency desired, which is then used to formulate vitamin pills labeled "B vitamins derived from yeast." I generally recommend taking B vitamins as part of the Multi Vitamin-Mineral-Antioxidant that I use.

Minerals in supplements are found in many different forms. Minerals occur in foods as part of molecules in which the mineral exists as a complex with other substances. Minerals in supplements are also found as complexes, and the substances with which they are complexed effect the degree to which the minerals are absorbed and utilized. Some mineral supplements are actually extracted from foods (for example, calcium hydroxyapatite), while others are complexed in the laboratory (for example, amino acid complexes of calcium) or found in nature (for example, calcium carbonate).

Calcium is the most commonly taken mineral supplement, and calcium supplements come in scores of different forms. But only one is actually a food extract and that is calcium hydroxyapatite. This is the form of calcium that naturally occurs in bone. Low temperature processing techniques are used to extract microcrystalline hydroxyapatite concentrate (MCHC) from raw bone-the best products utilize MCHC from free-range, pesticide-free New Zealand cattle. MCHC is a complex crystalline compound composed of calcium (about 24%), phosphorous, delicate organic factors (thus the importance of low temperature processing), protein matrix, and the full spectrum of minerals that naturally comprise healthy bone. Look for a calcium supplement in which the only source of calcium is MCHC. Many supplements say "MCHC" or "calcium hydroxyapatite" on the label, but when you read the ingredients carefully you discover that a secondary source of calcium, typically dicalcium phosphate-an inexpensive, poorly absorbed form of calcium-contributes an unstated percentage of the calcium to the supplement.

Many calcium formulas include magnesium; well-absorbed forms include magnesium aspartate, magnesium glycinate and magnesium oxide. Many other minerals may be complexed as aspartates or picolinates, which generally provide excellent absorption.

"Food Vitamin" Supplements
Understanding the "food vitamin" supplements is a bit tricky and warrants explanation. There are three general types of products that are often referred to as "food vitamins."

One type is made by taking standard USP (United States Pharmacopia) vitamins (manufactured in laboratories by biochemical processes) and putting them in tablets or occasionally capsules with dried foods and-or herbs (along with fillers and other additives used in production). Taking these vitamins is no different than taking standard USP vitamins with a meal (but a lot more expensive).

A second type of "food vitamin" is supplements made by adding standard USP vitamins to a liquid broth containing yeast. As the yeast grows, the vitamins and minerals are incorporated into the cell structure of the yeast. The yeast is then killed in a drying process, and the residue is pressed into tablets with herbs, binders, and manufacturing additives. The companies New Chapter and Megafood use this type of process to make their products.

Because of the amount of space taken up by the yeast, products made this way are very low in potency. Even if absorption is superior, the low potency and high cost makes them very cost-inefficient for anyone wishing to take, say, 500 mg of vitamin C, or 100 mg of coenzyme Q-10, or 400 IU of vitamin E, on a daily basis. Another problem I've encountered is that many people taking these yeast-based supplements for any length of time develop yeast sensitivities. This is particularly true for those with a history of candida problems (common in our carbohydrate-addicted culture).

The third kind of "food vitamin" supplements is products that are actually dried foods, often organic, pressed into tablets with the aid of manufacturing additives. Most products made by Standard Process fall into this category. Again because of size constraints, these products are necessarily of very low potency in terms of the amount of vitamins and minerals present, although some people feel they have potent effects. While they may be of excellent quality, they are very cost inefficient. Taking these supplements might be compared to eating good organic foods, in very small quantities.

Potency and Purity
For herbs, potency depends on the quality of the raw herb used and the care taken in manufacturing. A tremendously wide range of quality is found in different products. A poor quality product may have no effect whatsoever; the same dosage of a superior product may work wonders. The herbal products I most often use and recommend are liquid alcohol extracts and encapsulated dried herbal extracts. [WholeApproach carries select herbal tinctures from St. Francis Herb Farm.]

How potent a given vitamin or mineral product will be depends on what forms the vitamins and minerals are in, and how much of the product is actually absorbed and utilized. Vitamins and minerals may be complexed in various forms, as described above; forms identical or close to those found in foods are generally better absorbed and utilized.

There are two issues relating to purity. First, are the raw ingredients pure? Reputable manufacturers insure that each batch of raw materials is laboratory-tested for purity and can provide users with copies of certificates of analysis. The other issue concerns the additives nearly all manufacturers use in the production of supplements.

Nearly all supplements contain stearates, manufacturing agents used as lubricants to speed up production. Most capsules and tablets are made by "jobbers" in mass production plants, which churn out a multitude of formulas for various companies. Magnesium stearate and stearic acid are lubricants added to raw materials in supplements so that production machinery will run at maximum speeds. This ensures that production schedules will meet profit targets.

Tablets also contain potentially allergenic binders, fillers and often coloring agents. They are coated with shellac (listed in the ingredients as "natural glaze") or vegetable coating (derived from corn, to which many people are sensitive). Potentially allergenic fillers are used to top off capsules.

These additives have a number of effects, including decreased absorption. In a study published in Pharmaceutical Technology, the percent dissolution for capsules after 20 minutes in solution went from 90% without stearates to 25% with stearates. These substances clearly effect the dissolution and rapid absorption of nutrients. Another problem is allergenic reaction, for even small amounts of additives may cause reactions in sensitive individuals. Fillers may contain hidden lactose or other allergenic ingredients. This is a major reason why so many people have adverse reactions to supplements, or fail to receive the significant benefits pure supplements will offer. For these reasons, I recommend that when possible, people use additive-free supplements.

Because the supplements industry routinely uses additives in their products, manufacturers and distributors always deny that the presence of these substances is in any way detrimental. Nevertheless, it seems to me a simple matter of common sense that the most desirable products would not contain non-nutrient substances that are added solely to expedite the manufacturing process. Yellow Sun Ultra-Pure Naturals, 100% pure, additive-free supplements are sold at

Sources of Additive-Free Supplements and Herbal Products
The products mentioned in this article may be ordered directly from Yellow Sun Ultra Pure Naturals Optimal Vitamins-Minerals-Antioxidants: calcium hydroxyapatite, buffered vitamin C, magnesium, selenium, chromium, coenzyme Q10, alpha lipoic acid, grape seed extract, tocotriene complex, zinc, boron, manganese) are among those included in this great all natural multi. Cal 1000-Mag 500 Hydroxyapatite Plus: Includes calcium hydroxyapatite, magnesium, boron, manganese, and vitamin D3 from fish oil. Buffered Vitamin C, 500 mg, with 25 mg Alpha Lipoic Acid Yellow Sun Ultra-Pure Naturals Vanilla-Orange MSM Powder - Naturally Flavored

Living Better and Longer
Whole foods have always formed the core of my approach to health. In the early 1970s, I belonged to one of the first food coops in western Massachusetts. From there I went on to naturopathic medical school believing that if I learned enough about how food effects people, I could help them recover from most medical problems. That has turned out to be even truer than I realized then, as I discovered the work of Weston Price and other pioneers of nutritional therapy.

My studies and my years in practice have shown me that certain high quality food supplements can play a critical role in preventing and treating disease and in optimizing health and longevity. Properly understood, these nutrients, herbs, concentrates, special foods and extracts complement even the best diets. As we embrace the wonderful health-giving qualities of traditional whole foods, we should also embrace the best of what modern science has given us. Scientists and clinicians have clearly demonstrated the efficacy of a wide range of products that fall under the general heading of "food supplements." Knowledge is growing rapidly, and so too is the marketing hype that would have us believe that every new supplement is a magical elixir. The challenge and realistic goal is to separate the wheat from the chaff and apply this knowledge to live healthier, happier, and longer lives.