by Ann M. Colford

With so many supplements on the shelves now, and new advertisements coming out every day, the glut of information can be overwhelming. Every supplement seems to have its own unique set of instructions. How does a conscientious consumer pick and choose?

Generalizations about supplements are difficult, says Dr. Joanne Hillary, N.D., a naturopathic physician at Hillary's Health in the Spokane Valley. Still, it's possible to educate oneself about the products out there and what to look for; begin your wise shopping with some informed reading. "Self-education is very good, but you need to watch what sources you're reading," she says. "Find sources like educational institutions and research groups, sources that are not connected to people trying to make money from you."

Judi Miller, the natural living specialist with Huckleberry's on Spokane's South Hill, echoes this recommendation, particularly when searching for information on the Internet. "Online, you want to go to a reputable site, not someone who's trying to sell you something," she says. "Go to sites at universities or groups like the American Botanical Council." She particularly recommends,, and the Web site for the Columbia University Rosenthal Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Books are also a good source of information. Miller says she keeps a few reference books on hand for customers with specific questions. On Trent just east of downtown, Lorien Herbs and Natural Foods has a reading room available for browsing. "We've got a lot of reference books on many subjects," says owner Chris Bansemer. "And we have a big file of information, research studies and reports that people can come in and read."

While it's hard to generalize about supplements, the experts all agreed on some basic principles.

Standardization - Look for information on the label about standardization of the product's contents. Reputable suppliers prepare their products under controlled conditions and test to assure that each dose contains a specific percentage of the active ingredient(s). Also, read the serving sizes on the back of each package. "The front of the label may say 1000 mg, but if you look at the serving size, you might have to take six tablets to get that amount," Miller says.

Form helps function - Hillary recommends taking supplements in the form of powder or capsules rather than tablets, because these forms contain fewer fillers, binding agents or other inert ingredients. The fewer fillers, the better the rate of absorption will be.

Batch tracking and quality control - Look for serial numbers and expiration dates on supplement packaging. This means the supplement maker has batch tracking and quality control processes in place and could quickly isolate information about a particular batch if a problem were to arise. The manufacturer's telephone number or Web site address should also be readily available on the package. Both Miller and Bansemer say they research the quality control and testing procedures of the companies whose products they stock.

Timing - "Vitamins generally should be taken early in the day, because they act as stimulants," Hillary says. "With minerals, take them later in the day, because they can relax you." Also, she suggests taking mineral supplements a little bit after a meal -- maybe 20 to 30 minutes later -- and not at the same time as food. Digestive acids are needed to absorb the minerals in supplements, but absorbing minerals at mealtime could take away from the complete digestion of the food, she says, pointing out that over-the-counter antacid preparations -- like Tums, for example -- contain the mineral calcium.

Interactions - Just as with any other medicine, supplements can interact with each other and with prescription medications, and Hillary says there are too many possible combinations to allow for generalizations. She suggests talking to practitioners and pharmacists to determine if interactions may be a problem. Both Miller and Bansemer keep books on drug interactions on hand for quick reference, as well.

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