So in my post a while back I laid out how the quality of a supplement is so important! I cannot stress this enough and am so passionate about this point! There aren’t a ton of regulations on supplements and testing is not required so you are never quite sure what you are getting unless you do some research and buy a reputable brand (and I don’t mean Target, Walmart or GNC). Just because a brand is well knows does not make it safe either. It is best to ask the company questions and they should always be willing to divulge the information if they have nothing to hide. So now how do they go about making supplements?
First, we start with the supplies for the products, either the herbs or other natural products. What is the source of the raw materials? Are they getting the supplies from foreign or domestic suppliers? Are they using wildcrafting or cultivation? So what do these terms mean? Cultivation is where you have a field and you plant a crop and it grows. Maybe how you think of corn or soybeans. This is not how we get many dietary supplements. Instead they use wildcrafting which means there is land in which you have the raw material you want and you simply go there and get it when you need it. Most herbs and naturally occurring supplements don’t have a large enough market to cultivate so we wildcraft them.
So when you use cultivation you have a consistent supply. You plant the amount you want and you know how much you are going to get. But these plants are susceptible to insects and disease so to control them they use insecticides and herbicides. In this controlled environment you know what kinds of chemicals you are applying and how much.
In wildcrafting, there is a lot of seed variation. We aren’t always quite sure exactly all of what is being grown in the fields. You don’t know how much of a particular plant you are going to get either. You generally leave this area alone because it is growing wild and you don’t know if this area is being polluted or contaminated by nearby sources. There could be places nearby using chemicals and when it rains it may run off into the wildcrafted area. Raw materials can come from whole plants, plant parts or a crude mixture.
So how does this affect quality. Right here is the first step. What is the quality of these raw materials? We want to know we are getting the correct species and the appropriate harvest. Since many companies aren’t going to pay a scientist but rather a day laborer to harvest these there could be other plants mixed in because they can be hard to distinguish. This can be especially difficult when it comes to harvesting the roots of a plants. It can be very difficult to tell them apart. The weather changes frequently and maybe the flower blooms one year in early March but another year in later March but you need to get the product to market. This can also cause issues when you need to produce a product.
So now say we have the product harvested and we want to make these raw materials into our ingredients. They now need to be stored and processed. We need to be careful when we store them that they are not being contaminated and that they are stored properly so they do not break down. If we are getting a product from a foreign supplier they need to be shipped thousands of miles. Through all this we need to make sure they are safe and pure. We do so by performing chemical analysis of the ingredients. Most supplements are taken by mouth and so we need to ensure that they proper amounts are going into the supplement and that they are going to be absorbed. So this goes into bioavailibility and formulation.
As you can see the process is very complicated and requires a great deal of diligence on the part of the company making the product to ensure a quality product. So what can you do? Start by making sure your products have lot# and expiration dates on them. This is just one indicator of quality. We will get into more about how exactly companies test their products if they do at all.
Stay tuned for how manufacturers analyze dietary supplements!