Navigating the supplement aisle

Hello, my name is Marcus Seah. I am a 2nd year medical student from Ponya. This is my medical column and the aim is to talk about medical issues, specifically those of public health. Public health issues concern the overall health of people rather than specific diseases and treatments. Dental care is one example. Many of these issues are worth giving a thought about, but are seldom discussed.

This series aims to shed light unto vitamins and alternative medical therapies, presenting readers with a wider perspective of information that are seldom considered. This series is done with information obtained from interviewing Dr Benny K H Tan.

Dr Tan is an Associate Professor at the Department of Pharmacology in Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, NUS.

He is a medical doctor with research interests in how natural products can be used on cancer cells, blood sugar and lipid levels, and reducing ischemia of organs. He is a member of the Editorial Board of the online journal, Lipids in Health and Disease, and has more than 100 publications in international journals and more than 50papers presented at international conferences.

He has also previously served as Medical Consultant to Cerebos Pacific Ltd., which sells and does R & D in food and nutritional health products, and to Global Active, manufacturer of health supplements, distributed through GNC outlets.

This essay is part 2/3 of this series.


When you walk into Watsons or GNC and you see 500+ brands that offer about the same kinds of stuff, you wonder –  what’s the difference?


Which brand to choose?

“Well, the difference between different brands can be attributed to their formulations”, advised Dr Tan. The manufacturers behind different brands have different ideas of how much of a certain vitamin and mineral should be added. Therefore, they have different compositions and proportions of the different vitamins, and hence have different degrees of effectiveness.

But there is a baseline content for all brands.  Manufacturers are guided by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) recommended daily allowance (RDA) for vitamins and minerals. They base their formulations on the values provided.

Another reason for variable effectiveness from person to person is due to our difference in metabolism.  The brand that worked for me might not work for you. Since I’m not advertising for any brand, the best thing would be to try a product and assess its effectiveness on you. If it doesn’t work, just change the brand.


How much to take?

“Your dosage should be guided by the manufacturer’s recommendation in the accompanying leaflet, be responsible users and read the leaflet.” Dr Tan cautioned.

If you are taking less than recommended and don’t see any effects, you’re wasting your money, anyway. If you’re taking too much, you could be wasting your money or asking for trouble.

“Wastage happens when you take more than what the body needs or can store.” Dr Tan said.  Your body is able to store fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E, and K. However for vitamins that are water-soluble such as vitamin C, excess will be excreted in the urine. In certain situations, kidney stones can form, which is “asking-for-problems”,  because vitamin C makes the urine acidic and liable to stone formation. Here’s an article about it.


For more information

If you are erring on the side of caution when buying vitamins and minerals, Dr Tan recommends reading up/doing some reading/research on Cochrane Reviews . This is a collection of scientific papers relating to drugs/supplements/natural products and their uses. If you ever questioned an article’s stated purpose or a sales pitch by a promoter, you can check it out there. Scientists across the world do research with vitamins and other stuff and frequently update it.

I also found out about Authority Nutrition, where authors consult and cite scientific research papers when preparing their articles.

Having covered vitamins and their role in the previous essay, I hope that this short write-up equips you with enough information to make an informed decision on purchasing the “right” supplements. There is a lot of information out there about various supplements and their “miracle powers”. But ultimately, as responsible and prudent consumers, we should not be overly influenced by marketing tactics.

(Cover image from here)

About the Author

Marcus is a 2nd year Ponyan from Tembusu. In his free time, he studies medicine.