In a pill

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 14, 2002

The market for vitamin and herbal supplements is huge.

Each year, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on the two types of products and they're becoming increasingly harder to ignore.

The commercials and advertisements are everywhere and if you walk into any drug, discount or grocery store, you'll see rows and rows of bottles of multi-vitamins, single-vitamins, St. John's Wort, Ginko Biloba, garlic, kava, soy, ginger and a slew of others.

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Each one seems to promise more energy, fewer aches and pains, better memory, thinner thighs and a mile-long list of other personal improvements.

But what claims are real and which aren't? What's safe and what's not? And what's the difference between the two?

The distinction between vitamin and herbal supplements can help you determine which claims are real and what products are safe.

Generally, the most significant difference between vitamin and herbal supplements is manufacturers of vitamin supplements must meet United States Pharmacopeia (USP) standards, says Rick Knoll, the assistant director of pharmacy at the Austin Medical Center. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates those manufacturers and closely examines the product to make sure the ingredients are in the amounts listed.

However, herbal supplements do not receive the same amount of scrutiny by the FDA. "Unlike prescription and over-the-counter drugs, the herbal industry does not have to demonstrate the strength or effectiveness of the product," Knoll says. The herbal industry also doesn't have to have their product tested to make sure the ingredients and their amounts are represented honestly on the label.

Therefore, caution should be taken when considering using herbal supplements, he advises. "The customer has to find a manufacturer who is reliable, a label they trust. They have to be careful about how the herbal supplement interacts with their other medicines and they have to be mindful of the fact that just because it says it's all-natural, that doesn't mean it's totally safe and benign. I often advocate that people treat herbal therapies with respect like they would any other prescription drug."

Knoll also says people should talk to their physician before attempting to treat any type of serious medical condition, such as depression, with just an herbal or vitamin supplement and warns people to be careful in taking them because "they can cause side effects like liver and kidney toxicities."

Because of these possible problems, Knoll offers a list of tips for those interested in vitamin and herbal supplements:

n Be wary of advertising. "If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Sometimes these products have rather inflated claims without substantiation," says Knoll.

n Be cautious of manufacturers that say "there is a conspiracy in the medical community to quash their claims," because professionals in the medical community fear the product will take away from traditional medicine, Knoll says.

n "Any products using a test and personal reports to support those claims is one I would be shy of," says Knoll.

n Products claiming to aid in weight-loss are things everyone should avoid because they don't work safely and effectively or rarely at all, Knoll says.

n Don't believe infomercials or advertisements in magazines, warns Knoll. Flashy advertising just means the manufacturers are good advertisers, it doesn't mean the product works or is safe or healthy for you.

n Don't consider supplements to be a substitute for food. "There are a number of co-factors in food that we eat that can help in the breakdown of vitamins and minerals and help the body use it as effectively as possible," says Knoll. "If you just use a multi-vitamin or a single vitamin supplement, your body will not be able to convert it to its optimal use because the co-factors aren't there."

n Look for products with a USP label. Those products are produced by companies with good practices and you can be sure the product is represented honestly on its label.

n Finally, tell your physician or pharmacist before you begin to take some sort of dietary supplement for their opinion and to avoid any problems. Don't be ashamed or automatically assume your doctor or pharmacist will chastise you.

"Physicians are learning how best to deal safely with these on their part," says Knoll. "I always tell patients there's potential for these to do good and there's the potential for them to do harm. Treat them as you would any prescription and then in many instances, they can be used safely."

Amanda L. Rohde can be reached at 434-2214 or by e-mail at