There has been a dramatic increase in the use of nutritional supplements over the last several years, with many relying on these alternatives as a means to prevent and treat disease. There is a common belief held by the population that all supplements are created equal. This has led some to seek the best value, not the best quality. A consumer should know that the grade, form, purity, bioavailability and third party verification all contribute to the effectiveness of the product they're ingesting.
Nutritional supplements are typically available in four different categories: pharmaceutical grade, medical grade, cosmetic or nutritional grade, and feed or agricultural grade.
Pharmaceutical grade is the highest quality grade of vitamins, meaning the purity, dissolution and absorption meet the highest regulatory standard verified by an outside party. Pharmaceutical grade vitamins may be available without a prescription, but they are typically only sold by licensed health care practitioners.
Medical grade vitamins are also a high-grade vitamin, although they may not meet all of the standards of pharmaceutical grade vitamins. Prenatal vitamins typically fall into this category.
Cosmetic or nutritional grade supplements are typically sold in health food stores. These supplements might not always be tested for absorption, dissolution or purity. Additionally, these supplements do not always have the same concentrations of active ingredients as what is listed on the label.
Feed or agricultural grade supplements are produced for veterinary use, and patients should not use this grade of supplement [Source: Smith].
You may be asking, “Why are things such as form, purity and bioavailability so important?” The ability for your vitamin to work properly can vary greatly depending on the form used. An example of this is the difference between natural or synthetic vitamin E. Natural vitamin E is absorbed better from the GI tract and is more active than its synthetic counterpart. Magnesium aspartate is better absorbed and more bioavailable then magnesium oxide, but some manufacturers of lower-grade supplements use the oxide form because it takes up less room in the capsule or tablet and is less expensive. Purity is another important quality. All vitamins should be screened for impurities such as lead, mercury, pesticides, insecticides or other toxic ingredients [Source: Smith].
The best way to make sure you are purchasing a high quality nutritional supplement is to buy a pharmaceutical grade form. These are usually only sold by a licensed health care practitioner such as a doctor, nurse practitioner, compounding pharmacist or chiropractor. The manufacturers of pharmaceutical grade supplements know their high quality products can have a profound effect on an individual’s health; therefore, they want a licensed health care practitioner monitoring the use of their product. If you don't know if the supplements you are purchasing are pharmaceutical grade, make sure the company is Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) certified and find out by whom they are certified. You may also want to make sure they perform laboratory analysis on their products, find out what kind of assays they perform on their products, and see if they do disintegration studies on their supplements. You may also want to see if the company performs human trials to ensure they are safe and effective. Seeking out a health care provider trained in integrative medicine can be a step in the right direction to help you through the process of finding a high quality nutritional supplement that will meet your personal needs.
- Smith, Pamela. (2004). Vitamins: Hype or Hope? Healthy Living Books, Inc., Traverse City, MI. P 11-12.