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Safe Shopping for Supplements


You're standing in the aisle of your local health food store with several different products in your hands, trying to decide which one to purchase. Sound familiar? You're not alone. According to the Canadian Health Food Association (CHFA), more than 1.

You're standing in the aisle of your local health food store with several different products in your hands, trying to decide which one to purchase. Sound familiar? You're not alone.

According to the Canadian Health Food Association (CHFA), more than 1.5 million Canadians are already substituting prescription drugs with natural health products. We're buying mainly vitamins, herbs and supplements, which make up over 60 per cent of total retail sales. And we want to know that these products are of the highest possible quality.

The quality, safety and efficacy of any health product are directly related to how much care and attention goes into its manufacturing, says Don Beatty, director of quality assurance at a leading natural products manufacturer. "Without proper good manufacturing practices (GMPs) and quality control processes, consumers have absolutely no assurance that the products they are buying contain ingredients with either the quality or quantity stated on the product's label."

Beatty says to have any assurance of quality, people must rely on the reputation of the company making the product. "This reputation needs to be based on actual manufacturing and quality standards, not on how flashy their marketing campaigns proclaiming high quality are."

Health Canada's Natural Health Products Directorate says that consumer safety is its main motivation for providing a system of quality management that will standardize the natural health products Canadians use (see alive #234). It has included new guidelines for GMPs in its proposed regulatory framework.

"Until the NHPD guidelines go into effect, natural health product companies fall under the drug products industry and the food industry, and they are required to meet the GMP guidelines for these two industries," says Caroline So, director of quality systems at another health products company. Accordingly, companies have their own quality control systems in place.

The CHFA also firmly supports GMP standards for the industry as a whole. "The need to ensure that natural health products adhere to appropriate quality standards is a key concern to firms in the industry, particularly among retailers and manufacturers," states a CHFA report prepared in the late '90s for Agriculture and AgriFood Canada.

For several years the CHFA has been working with the health products industry to develop and implement its own quality assurance program because, it has found, government GMPs designed solely for drug firms are inappropriate for health products manufacturers. Unfortunately, this situation may not change much even with the new regulations.

The government's recently revised 2002 edition of GMP guidelines ( ) still lumps natural health products in with pharmaceuticals.

Note: Company names have been omitted from this article. It is for educational purposes only.

Quality Assurance Checklist

Check a Company's Reputation

Choose products from a company that has a strong history of ethics and a solid reputation for producing high quality products. Word-of-mouth is powerful. If several sources have frequently remarked about a company's high standards, there is usually a foundation of truth to it. Sources include the staff at your local health food store, family and friends, your natural health practitioner, and current literature.

Read the Fine Print

Read the fine print on product labels very carefully. Check side panels for details on the ingredient strength and form. Be aware that products regulated as "foods" are bound by current law and cannot give details of the product's effects, when it should be taken, how much to take, or when it's inadvisable to take the product. As a result, always check with your natural health-care practitioner or other reliable sources, particularly if you have health concerns. Product labels should be clearer when the new regulations come into effect over the next two to three years.

Pay Extra Attention to Imports

Also be aware that until the new regulations come into effect, no mechanism is in place to ensure imported products meet Canadian manufacturing standards. This doesn't mean that other countries don't have their own regulations, however. For more information on regulations in other countries, visit, click on "Publications" and check out pages 56 to 58 of the Industry Sector Profile.

Do Your Research

If you have questions about a product that cannot be answered by the label, store staff or health-care professionals, contact the company. Most have Web sites with details on their quality control standards as well as contact numbers so that you can get your questions answered directly. Type the company name in your search engine and its site will turn up. If you don't have Internet access, your local health food store will likely have contact numbers.

Sources: Canadian Health Food Association's Industry Sector Profile; Don Beatty, contributor to Herbs: Everday Reference for Health Professionals, published by the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Pharmacists Association.



Innovation for Good

Innovation for Good

Neil ZevnikNeil Zevnik