The natural health products industry is growing rapidly.  Even pharmaceutical companies are now cashing in on the boom by buying out or starting their own natural health product lines.  Going into a health food store and figuring out what it is you want to buy can seem like an overwhelming and almost impossible task.  Over the years, I have had the benefit being educated directly by many companies about their products; how they were formulated, how they were made and how they selected their raw ingredients.

My clients often ask me why I chose a particular brand, or why I’m not recommending the product they saw advertised on TV.  In this series I hope to provide you with information that will allow you to investigate or ask the right questions so that you are more able to determine whether you are buying a good quality product and whether a product is right for you.

In this first instalment of a very extensive topic, we will look at the matter of ingredients, or materials used to make the product.

Materials, aka The Ingredients: 

What is your product made of or derived-from?  Is it in a whole form, or is it some sort of extract?

How are the ingredients made?

Vitamins and minerals and other “nutrients”:

These products are most commonly USP or “United States Pharmacopeia”.  This means that the vitamins or minerals are chemically synthesized in a lab.  For example, vitamin C is synthesized from glucose (a sugar molecule).  There are certain exceptions to this rule, for example, Vitamin D is most often extracted from sheep’s lanolin, Vitamin E is most often derived from soy and l-glutamine is most commonly derived from corn.  There are a few companies that have developed proprietary methods of extracting “food-based” nutrients by using USP vitamins and minerals and transforming them into a natural, complex form.  The premise for doing this is to allow for greater absorption and utilization by the body.


The FORMS of the nutrients:  One very important factor to consider when when looking at vitamins, minerals and “nutrients” is its form.   Because most of them are chemically derived, the forms can vary a lot.  This is relevant for 2 reasons: absorption and efficacy.   Some forms are more absorbable than others and some are more therapeutically valuable than others.

e.g. Calcium comes in many forms:  Calcium carbonate, calcium citrate, calcium gluconate, calcium ascorbate, calcium as MCHC (microcrystalline hydroxyapatite complex) or bone-derived….etc.

I could spend a whole day, maybe more, on the topic of calcium alone, so I can’t get into all of the nitty-gritty pros and cons of each, (maybe I’ll save that for another blog series) but I want to present some of the issues to consider.

For example, many people recommend calcium citrate over calcium carbonate because calcium citrate is calcium bound to citric acid.  Because calcium is alkaline and it requires an acid environment to be digested and absorbed, the logic is to bind the calcium to an acid to provide the acidity needed.   This is often a good recommendation for people with poor digestive function such as the elderly.  However, does that make calcium carbonate obsolete?  Not necessarily; if digested properly it is still medicinally valuable.  An other dimension to the issue of absorption and effectiveness is the product formula as a whole.  I will discuss this topic in an upcoming edition of this series: Labeling & Formulations….stay tuned!

Some other examples of different forms:

B12:  cyanocobalamin, methylcobalamin.  Methylcobalamin is more quickly absorbed into the body, but if the supplement is taken longterm, cyanocobalamin can still be beneficial.

Magnesium:  Magnesium citrate, magnesium malate, magnesium bisglycinate

Herbal medicine:

When looking at a product which contains herbs, you can identify whether it contains the whole herb, an extract, or both.

Extracts:  Extracts are often used in formulas because it is arguable that there is a more potent medicinal effect if you concentrate certain constituents (or chemical compenents) rather than giving the plant in its natural state.  That’s like saying, instead of eating oranges for the vitamin C, we will extract the vitamin C from the oranges and give you an amount of vitamin C equivalent to 10 or 20 oranges in a single dose–much more vitamin C than a person could realistically acquire from eating oranges in a single day!  The constituents extracted from a given herb are chosen based on knowledge of the pharmaceutical properties of the plant and possibly on clinical research.


Pros:  Products are medicinally more concentrated, more potent and more likely to result in desired therapeutic effect.  It supports an evidence-based approach to the use of herb.  Naturally occurring components of the whole herb such as fibre, can prevent the body from optimally absorbing the medicinal components.

Cons:  When you take away the rest of the plant in favour of one component,  you are also taking away a multitude of other medicinal constituents, many of which are valuable but haven’t been sufficiently studied yet. E.g.  Beyond vitamin C, oranges have many other nutrients such as bioflavanoids, and other antioxidants which act synergistically with the vitamin C to enhance the antioxidant effect.

Whole or Crude herb:  If there are no additional details which indicate it’s an extract, than it’s likely a whole herb product.  This means that a portion of the plant (e.g. leaf, root, berry) are ground up into a powder and placed in a capsule, or the herb is infused in a tincture. Often the label will indicate which part of the plant was used….this is highly relevant for certain products:

e.g. milk thistle, where the majority of the medicinal properties are found in the berries (or fruit), and not the seeds, leaves or roots

e.g. dandelion; the roots have a medicinal benefit for the liver and the leaves have a benefit for the kidneys and urinary system–two completely different applications coming from the same plant.

Pros:  Synergy of all the medicinal constituents inherently designed in the herb in its natural state.

Cons: You may need to take more of it to achieve the therapeutic benefit, or may slower to achieve the medicinal goal.  The use of the whole herb may not be substantiated by scientific evidence or evidence-based research.

Where does the herb come from?

It’s difficult to find out the exact source of each herb without contacting the company and doing some thorough investigation.  Some companies openly disclose that they are “proudly Canadian” for example, and source all of their materials from Canada, whereas others may have a variety of sources depending on what’s available at the time, the price and the quality.

Most companies use dried herbs in their products, but there are a few companies out there that make their extracts or tinctures from fresh herbs.

Wildcrafted vs. Organic?

The term “certified organic” means that the herb is grown free of pesticides according to certain standards set by the certification institution.  This is the most reliable indicator of whether the herbs used are clean.  Another term we see in herbal medicine is “wildcrafted”.   Wildcrafted means that the herb was harvested in the wild.  This brings up a few concerns: a) Were they harvested in accordance with ecological preservation guidelines or are they abusing the land?  b) Where exactly were they harvested from?  A pristine meadow or near an open sewer?  It’s hard to track down this kind of information.


Fish oil:

Fish oils are generally extracted and concentrated according to its EPA and DHA content.  EPA and DHA are two forms of omega 3 which are most clinically effective according to research.   The ratios among EPA and DHA vary a lot in different products because they may have different therapeutic goals.  For more information about the different properties of EPA & DHA, check out my blog post, “A Health Eater’s Guide to Omega 3“.

Some products have very high concentrations of these two omega 3 fatty acids…..which implies that there were some special extraction methods used to achieve such high levels.  For more on extraction methods, stay tuned for part 2 of this series on manufacturing practices…..

Source:  Most fish oils are derived from small cold seawater fish such as mackerel and sardines because of their high omega 3 content and because they are of a smaller size and lower on the food chain, they are less likely to accumulate environmental toxins like heavy metals.   Large fish like tuna which are notorious for having high levels of mercury are rarely used.  Some companies make salmon oil specifically for the medicinal constituents it contains for heart health, most notably, an antioxidant called astaxanthin.

I would hope that all companies follow ethical fishing practices and have quotas and regulations in place, but this may not be the case.  There are many companies which openly disclose when, where and how much they fish, or are transparent about the guidelines they follow.   All oils are purified of toxins, but different companies vary in how rigorous those purifications and testing standards are.

Some fish oil brands employ a 3rd party testing agency such as IFOS (International Fish Oil Standards Program) to blindly test the quality and purity of the product so that the public can be assured that the brand is not lying about their claims.   Information about ethical practices and 3rd party testing might be difficult to find on the label, so you could either ask an educated staff member at the store or go on the company’s website.  If you see the logo for a 3rd party testing agency such as IFOS on the label, you can actually go on the IFOS website, type in the lot number of the fish oil you’re using, and see the report for that batch.

In Summary:

Read the label to find out:

  • What form are the nutrients?  Are they chemically derived or a natural source?  Are the forms ideal for your needs?
  • for herbal products; Are you looking at a whole herb product, or extract, or both?  What part of the herb is being used?  Are the herbs organic or wildcrafted?  From where are the herbs sourced?
  • for fish oil: What types of fish are used? How much EPA & DHA does it have per dose? How rigorous are their purification and testing methods?

Stay tuned for the next parts in this series regarding manufacturing practices, and labeling & formulations……

Your turn!

What questions do you have about the ingredients in your natural health products?

Do you have anything to add?

Choosing the Best Natural Health Products Part 1: The Ingredients
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