Are you confused? Part Two: The Health Food Store
The choices in a health food store can be even more confusing than in a drug store. On a recent trip to Whole Foods, I counted 27 different varieties—and that was just in nasal sprays! Each natural product has more beautiful herb-decorated packaging than the last. Meanwhile I’ve heard about herbs that are adulterated and vitamins that don’t contain what the label promises. How to navigate among the choices?
I asked Burke Lennihan, RN, CCH, my co-author for Cough Cures. Here are her top principles for buying vitamins, herbs and other supplements.
Get natural, not synthetic.
The body doesn’t recognize synthetic vitamins and can’t use them well. That’s one of the main reasons that research on vitamins often seems to show that vitamins don’t work or even that they are harmful. Researchers want to standardize ingredients so they tend to go for synthetic. But then the body doesn’t recognize the synthetic vitamin, which defeats the whole purpose! For example, get vitamin D3 the natural form, not the synthetic form, vitamin D2. Physicians unfortunately tend to prescribe D2.
Health food store brands are better.
Drugstore brands are inexpensive because they contain the cheapest form of each vitamin – the synthetic form, or one that’s poorly absorbed. A great example is calcium carbonate, the main ingredient in Tums. Just about any other form of calcium will be absorbed and used by the body more easily than calcium carbonate. Drugstore brands are also limited in how much of each vitamin they contain. As an exception, certain health food brands like New Chapter and Rainbow Light have “crossed the aisle” into drugstores. These are dependable brands.
Don’t get isolated vitamins
Get them in a compound, or even better yet, food-based. Vitamin C is technically ascorbic acid, and you could buy plain ascorbic acid. You might see Vitamin C with bioflavonoids – that’s a more complete form. Look for Vitamin E with mixed tocopherols. Some supplements will have herbs and foods in the base (listed as “other ingredients” on the label) — that’s even better.
Don’t skimp on price.
Usually the less expensive brands will have less of the active ingredient. Compare the fine print on the label. A couple of exceptions: Jarrow and NOW are good brands that tend to be quite a bit less expensive than others with comparable ingredients. If your health food store has its own brand, that’s likely to be your best bet.
Focus on the ingredients you need.
If you are buying a supplement for a particular purpose, let’s say to support your immune system, it doesn’t need to have all the vitamins that a typical multivitamin would have.
Beware of internet brands.
Brands that sell directly to the consumer from the internet, i.e. brands that are not sold in stores, are the ones likely to be adulterated or fraudulent in their ingredients. While it’s true that the FDA does not check the content of natural products, it’s also true that the ethical supplement companies conform to what’s called “Good Manufacturing Practices.” It’s also true that the natural products industry is small enough that people know each other. If a brand sold in stores is cheating on its ingredients, store owners will find out and the word will spread. That is not true of supplements only sold on the internet, where there is no community “policing” of brands. This brings us to our last point . . .
Shop at your local independent health food store
For the best advice and the best products, shop at your local independent health food store. It is worth it to pay a little more at your local store. This type of store attracts staff who are devoted to natural products, who have been working with them for a long time, and who are extremely knowledgeable, much more so than in the big national chains. In these smaller stores, the staff gets to know the customers, so they know what works in your area. That can make a big difference in dealing with pollen allergies, for example.
As for the best nasal spray, here’s what I’ve found:
It’s not actually as confusing as it may seem. First, do you need a neti pot or bulb syringe, or do you already have one and you just need a refill? If you need something to squirt a saline rinse into your nose, Dr. Gus recommends the NeilMed brand because it has a special tip that prevents the fluid from coming out under too much pressure, and the saline has been slightly buffered to make sure it’s not irritating.
If you already have a delivery system and you just need to refill it with a nasal rinse, my all-around favorite is XClear, which combines a saline rinse with xylitol, a natural sugar substitute that acts against bacteria in the nasal cavity. However, if you have a drippy nose because of allergies, I would get a more targeted nasal rinse, one with homeopathic remedies to combat allergies. I found four at my local Whole Foods and they are all excellent, reliable brands with similar ingredients. All of them contain homeopathic medicines well known for itchy, runny eyes and noses from pollen allergies. Similisan’s Nasal Allergy Relief will be especially effective for people who just can’t stop sneezing; Bio Allers’ Sinus & Allergy Nasal Spray for those with sinus pressure/sinus headaches; and NaturalCare’s Mucus Fix and Natra Bio Cold and Sinus Nasal Spray are especially good for those with thick, sticky mucus. I just wouldn’t use a medicated nasal rinse like these homeopathic ones if allergies are not your problem.
Another approach is to get a saline rinse enhanced with essential oils, which work against all kinds of bacteria, viruses and fungi — because plants have to fend off the same kind of intruders that we do! Research shows they are quite effective; you would just need to find one with a scent you like. My local Whole Foods has testers for the essential oils. Finally, there are special kinds of salt to make your own, but honestly, you could use any kind of natural salt.
The bottom line:
You can generally trust the products in any natural food store, independent or chain. They have been evaluated to make sure they contain what the label says and they do not contain adulterated ingredients. Get the store brand if available for the best deal, otherwise look for Jarrow or NOW. If you can afford the more expensive brands, they will be worth it because they will save you money on your health in the long run. If the choice of brands is overwhelming, ask the staff for advice.
Using these simple guidelines will save you money, time and ultimately promote a healthier lifestyle by avoiding dangerous combination drugs you don’t really need.
For more helpful tips, check out Cough Cures: The Complete Guide to the Best Natural Remedies and Over-the-Counter Drugs for Acute and Chronic Coughs