Supplements are a highly controversial topic. There are a lot of people who question whether we need to supplement at all. These people believe that we can get all the nutrients we need from our food, and as someone who used to eschew supplements and consider them a waste of money, I certainly get where they are coming from.

However, after taking professional courses and doing more in-depth research on supplements, I realized that my initial assumptions were incorrect. We shouldbe able to get all of our nutrients from food, but the fact is, our modern society is not set up in a way that makes this easy, nor, some would argue, possible.

In fact, this study shows that “in large proportions of the population, micronutrient sufficiency is currently not being achieved through food solutions for several essential vitamins and minerals.” The vitamins and minerals referenced are A, C, D, E, calcium and magnesium.

Now you may be asking yourself why we can’t get adequate amounts of nutrients from our food anymore. Well, there are a few different reasons for this. First of all, modern farming practices have stripped our soil of nutrients, which means fewer nutrients end up in our food. Other studies have confirmed these findings as well.

Second, it takes anywhere from a few days to several weeks for food to travel from the farm to your local grocer. Plus, there is the additional time it sits in the store (1-3 days), and the time it sits in your fridge (up to seven more days). This lag from farm to plate means that there will be a significant degradation in key micronutrients.

Third, the quality of our diets has drastically declined as we have moved away from whole, unrefined foods to highly processed, convenience foods. In North America, processed foods now make up 70% of our diet. Compounding this issue is that fact that only 13% of Americans eat enough fruit and only 8.9% eat enough vegetables.

Finally, certain groups of people may require extra nutrients, as some factors deplete nutrients, while others can block their absorption. For example, drinking coffee or tea blocks iron absorption, smoking depletes vitamin C, and exercise depletes magnesium. You may also need additional nutrients if you:

  • have an illness or injury
  • are under stress
  • drink alcohol
  • smoke
  • are dieting
  • are obese
  • have poor digestion
  • have a mental health disorder
  • are on prescription medications or birth control
  • are pregnant or nursing
  • are regularly exposed to toxins or pollution
  • live in a Northern climate
  • are elderly

As you can see, this list encompasses pretty much everyone. So yes, you need to supplement, but you also need to make sure that you are choosing the right supplement, in the right amount, for the right length of time. That being said, I do believe that most people can benefit from a high-quality multivitamin/mineral supplement and a high-quality fish oil.

Now, you may be wondering how you can tell good quality supplements from poor quality supplements? Well, it’s best to do your own research and consult with your health practitioner, but here are the top six things that you can check for:

1. In Canada, you want to make sure that the company has a Natural Product Number (NPN). This is an eight-digit number that means that the product has been reviewed by Health Canada and deemed to be safe, effective and of high quality.

2. Do your research and make sure that the company is reputable and that it operates with integrity. This means googling to see if there have been any recalls or complaints, ensuring that any claims made are backed by research, and making sure that the company follows Good Manufacturing Practices(GMP). Also, check to see if they have good customer service policies (like a satisfaction or money-back guarantee).

3. Check for good labeling practices, which means transparency in listing both active and inactive ingredients. Does the company share all their ingredients or do they hide behind any ‘proprietary’ blends? Also, ensure that the label clearly lists any potential allergens and contraindications.

4. Look for third-party testing logos on products. Third-party testing means that the company has submitted their product to a third party to be tested for purity and/or quality. Some well-respected organizations include Consumer Labs, the Natural Products Association, the United States Pharmacopeia, Informed Choice, Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Association, the Banned Substance Control Group, and NSF International.

5. Look at the types of ingredients that are being used. Again doing your own research will come in handy, but here is a table that shows just a few examples of low-quality nutrients that are generally poorly absorbed, and the forms of nutrients you should be looking for instead. You also want to make sure that the inactive ingredients are of high quality (avoid artificial colours, sweeteners, flavours, wheat, lactose, stearic acid, and hydrogenated oils).

Poor quality, poor absorbabilityChoose instead
Calcium CarbonateMCHA, Calcium Citrate
Magnesium OxideMagnesium Citrate, Magnesium (Bis)Glycinate
Zinc OxideZinc (Bis)Glycinate, Zinc Picolinate
Riboflavin HClRiboflavin-5-Phosphate
Pyridoxine HClPyridoxal-5-Phosphate
Folic AcidFolate (L-5 MTHF)
Iron SulphateIron Citrate, Iron (Bis)Glycinate

6. Finally, make sure that the supplement contains the appropriate dosage so that it will have the desired effect you are looking for. This is especially true if you are using supplements therapeutically rather than for maintenance purposes or to ‘cover your bases’. Generally, a one-a-day multi from the drugstore is not going to provide you with the quality nor the quantity of nutrients you are looking for.