Naturopathic doctor Paul Saunders, ND, PhD, offers advice on shopping for herbs and supplements.
Where do you suggest people go to buy herbs and supplements?
That's a very good question. I carry professional lines or "doctor-only" supplements that are only available to my patients. In general, I always tell people to go to a reliable health food store, drug store, or grocery store that will refund a product if it is unsatisfactory. I'm not as convinced about the Internet because you don't always have the chance to see the product and scrutinize the label before you buy it.
Does price usually reflect the quality?
From a price standpoint, do not buy the cheapest, because these are often the products that are examined in the studies comparing the amount stated on the label to the actual amount in the bottle, and have been found to contain little or nothing. That doesn't mean you have to buy the most expensive product, but it should fall somewhere in the middle range. As a general rule in the herbs and supplement market, you get what you pay for.
Gelatin capsules, tablets, tincture and teas - can you explain the differences?
The reason for these different forms is taste buds and culture. I find that most people absorb alcohol extracts best. The amount of alcohol in the mixture depends on the herb. Some manufacturers will remove some of the alcohol in order to make the mixture more palatable.
Capsules and pills are often used by people who do not like the taste of herbs. Capsules usually contain the herb or extract that has been dried and ground up. People with strong digestive systems can digest the capsule shell but older people or people with digestive disorders may have some difficulty.
Tablets are even harder to absorb, because the materials are highly compressed and may have an added binding ingredient. Again, your ability to digest the coating and binders and release the herb will depend on the strength of your digestive system.
Tea is a traditional form in many Eastern cultures. It is important to understand that when brewing or steeping tea, the container must be covered otherwise the valuable essential oils will evaporate away.
Why are there different forms of some supplements? Is one preferable over another?
Form is important. For example, I may recommend magnesium to a patient. In the United States, the most bio-available form is magnesium aspartate, and in Canada, it's magnesium citrate. Many patients get confused because they look at the label and while it does contain magnesium, it's magnesium stearate, which only acts as a binder and preservative. Stearate does not improve the absorption of magnesium, and might even interfere with the absorption of the real magnesium. This kind of information on the label is very important to understand.
Are organically-grown herbs worth the extra money?
Some companies claim to be organic and grow their herbs without pesticides. However, the only state or province where the rules governing organics are very strict is California. If California organic rules are not met, you really do not know what you are getting.
How about genetic engineering - is there any cause for concern?
In the herb and supplement manufacturing industry, standards and specifications defining what genetically modified organism (GMO)-free means are not in place. Eventually, regulation will be introduced to North America. As it stands, however, a manufacturer may claim to be GMO-free and you must believe the manufacturer. Or not believe the manufacturer, as the case may be.
Does the smell of an herbal tincture provide any cues to its quality?
If you are familiar with raw herbs, you can smell and taste an herbal tincture and tell whether it is a quality product. Most consumers, though, are not able to judge quality this way. The alternative is to find a reliable manufacturer. Ask around - chances are a friend or co-worker has tried a good quality product that he or she has found to be useful. Again, use price as a rule of thumb.