More and more people in the UK and around the world are turning to alternative medicine and natural remedies to support their health and well-being, or to help them achieve their health goals.
However, as with anything, when it comes to health supplements you get what you pay for.
If you walk into a supermarket, health shop or pharmacy nowadays, you will more than likely find a huge (and confusing!) selection of vitamins, minerals and other supplements - often with wide ranging price points.
The question is, are they all the same? And, if not, how do you choose between them?
One important differentiating factor can be the quality of the ingredients used. It would seem logical that, in products that are designed to support health, quality and purity should be of paramount importance. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
Some vitamin manufacturers focus more on profit margins and low retail prices than on the quality and effectiveness of their products. So, if your supplements are suspiciously cheap, take a look at the ingredients list. You may be in for a nasty surprise!
Many of us choose to support our daily diets with vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in supplement form, to help ensure that we are meeting our body's daily nutritional requirements.
However, there is little point in taking supplements that are actually putting more harmful substances into your body. But, believe it or not, this is exactly what can happen if you are not careful in your selection.
For instance, watch out for vitamins, minerals or herbs in tablet form. Very often, the active ingredients (the actual nutrients) can make up as little as 15% of the tablet! The remaining 85% comprises additives, preservatives and other added 'nasties' such as fillers, binders, excipients, artificial colourings, sweeteners, disintegrants, dilutents and more.
The lower the price of the tablets, the more likely it is that a high level of these undesirable ingredients have been included. Ultimately, you get what you pay for.
When it comes to your health, isn't it worth spending that little extra if it means you are getting a purer, more effective product? Otherwise, you might simply be wasting your time and money on products that either pass through your body with little effect, or worse, could actually be harmful.
Apart from the fact that you will be paying for a sub-standard product that can have little if any beneficial effect on the body, there are some other very practical reasons why you might want to avoid cheap vitamins and minerals.
For instance, there are many reports of cheap tablets either passing through the digestive tract undigested (which means that there has been no benefit to the user) or, more worryingly, that they can get stuck there - neither disintegrating or passing through.
Another common example is that of ascorbic acid, often used in cheap vitamin C supplements.
Ascorbic acid is actually a man-made chemical, which is manufactured in chemical plants by applying heat, pressure and chemicals to glucose (sugar), which converts the glucose to ascorbic acid.
Contrary to popular belief, ascorbic acid and natural vitamin C are not the same. Vitamin C is a naturally-occurring nutrient, found in a variety of fruit and vegetables, while ascorbic acid is an artificial, reduced form of the natural vitamin. When it is heated, the vitamin itself breaks down and can become largely ineffective
Ascorbic acid is an isolate, a fraction, a distillate of naturally-occurring vitamin C - basically the “antioxidant wrapper” which protects the functional parts of vitamin C from rapid oxidation or breakdown.
In addition to ascorbic acid, vitamin C must include rutin, bioflavonoids, Factor K, Factor J, Factor P, tyrosinase, ascorbinogen and other components. In addition, mineral co-factors must be available in proper amounts.
If any of these are missing, there is no vitamin C and, more importantly from a health perspective, no vitamin activity. When only some of them are present, the body will draw on its own stores to make up the difference, so that the whole vitamin may be present. Only then will vitamin activity take place, provided that all other conditions and co-factors are present - but this is, of course, a drain on your body's own reserves - not ideal.
What's more, isolated ascorbic acid is not absorbed or used by the body in the same way as food, and (as an acid) can actually upset the stomach and irritate the digestive tract, and even worsen medical conditions.
In the same way, alpha-tocopherol is not vitamin E, retinoic acid is not vitamin A and so on through the other vitamins.
Another key difference between whole food vitamins and synthetics is that the former naturally contain within them many essential trace minerals necessary for their synergistic operation. In contrast, synthetic vitamins contain no trace minerals, relying on, and depleting, the body’s own mineral reserves.
It is telling that the man who coined the word "vitamin", Dr. Casimir Funk (a Polish biochemist), stated that synthetic vitamins "... are highly inferior to vitamins from natural sources, also the synthetic product is well known to be far more toxic.”
The body is unable to manufacture most vitamins itself. As such, they must be obtained from the food we eat.
The best sources then are obviously natural whole foods, rich in vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients that are in a form that is easily recognised, absorbed and utilised by the body - what we call "food form" or "food state".
Unfortunately, because of soil depletion, mineral depletion, pesticides, air pollution, erosion and other toxins and pollutants in the environment, foods grown in soil today have only a fraction of the nutrient value of even 50 years ago. That means a fraction of the vitamins and minerals necessary for normal cell function and overall health and vitality.
What we are often left with in the supermarket, is a choice of empty, 'dead' foods of commerce. This is one of the main reasons why so many people now choose to support their nutrient intake with natural food form supplements, where you can be sure of what you are getting.
Natural, unadulterated food is what our bodies are best able to break down; in contrast, they struggle with synthetic vitamins, chemically polluted and refined / processed foods.
A "food form supplement" is simply one which has been specially prepared to be as similar to real food as possible to assist this process, which in turn means that the body can absorb the nutrients more easily.
Food form supplements usually come in capsule form. Not only are capsules easier to swallow, they help to increase the absorption of the product and you will not find a capsule passed through the digestive tract - it is designed to dissolve. This means that the supplement's nutrients can be efficiently released into the system and absorbed much more easily.
In an age when we are exposed to an ever-increasing number of environmental toxins and chemicals, opting for both organic food and supplements wherever possible is an ideal means of helping to reduce your toxic load and get the most out of the nutrients in your diet.
Produced from organically grown fruits, vegetables and grains, organic food form supplements will not have had any chemical compounds (such as additives) introduced into their plants at any point.
Health supplements that are organic and natural may also have a higher content of vitamins and minerals and contain lower levels of toxic metals (including mercury, lead, and aluminium) than their non-organic counterparts.
And one last thing, don't overly concern yourself with ingredient milligrams.
While you will, of course, want an idea of the concentration of nutrients in your vitamins and supplements, synthetic vitamins are refined, high potency chemicals, and therefore may be accurately measured in milligrams, just like drugs.
This has nothing to do with vitamin activity or nutrition (except in a negative way), and is actually much more difficult to measure in natural food form products. This is not a reflection of their efficacy - quite the opposite.