We need to have a chat about nutritional “supplements”

I had to wait in the pharmacy recently while I was out shopping. So I decided to take a look at the over-the-counter (OTC) products while standing around.

I was particularly looking at the vitamins and supplements. I saw that they had a lot of products targeted at the Latino community. I took a look at a few. Some seem pretty much the same type of pills and liquids that are available to everyone else: liver detoxifiers, brain boosters, bowel cleansers and similar products.

But a few had some unusual ingredients that I had never heard of before. Apparently they were extracts from plants that may be native to South and Central America.

Being an MD, and a curious guy, when I got home I tried to track the ingredients down. I didn’t have much success in doing that. I also found out that several of these supplements are not listed in the medication checking software that I tried. So one or more of these might be capable of having interactions with other OTC medications or prescription medications, and there may not be a reliable way to find that out in advance. Bear that in mind before you try one.

If it's green, it's gotta be good for you. (Supplement via Shutterstock)

If it’s green, it’s gotta be good for you. (Supplement via Shutterstock)

For example, I ran across a “digestive remedy” that claims to cure just about any problem that you could have with your gastrointestinal tract: gas, diarrhea, constipation, hemorrhoids, belching, heartburn, GERD, etc. And all you need is just three drops whenever any of those problems is upsetting your belly. The ingredients (none of them listed as “active ingredients”): >Lots of water, some sugar, lemon juice and a little peppermint oil. All that for $5.99 for a half-ounce.

I’m not sure that this does anything at all for the conditions listed above. But if it did, you could probably make a few gallons of it at home for the $5.99 cost for a half-ounce.

Also near the supplements were some items listed as “superfood.” One “superfood” was a bag with some chocolate covered berries. They were touted as having a lot of antioxidants. They said that the antioxidants were good for the heart, could help prevent cancer, were anti-aging, chocolate was also good for the heart, etc. Of course, the fine print said that this information hadn’t been verified by the FDA, and neither the FDA of the manufacturer was claiming that these berries actually did do any of these things.

Oh, and the term “superfood”? Superfood is just a way to imply that the product so labeled is supposed to be just wonderful for you. It really isn’t defined in the scientific community. So marketers and manufacturers can use it to catch your eye and lead you to believe that whatever their selling is just fantastic for you nutritionally.

Moving along to the digestive aids area, I spotted a new laxative. It was designed especially for women. It was called “light” and “gentle acting.” I wondered what this special laxative was. A different drug? Smaller dose? No. It was one of the same generic laxatives that was in several other boxes by other manufacturers. And it was the same sized dose and dosing directions, too.

I compared the brand name “regular” laxative to this one for the “ladies.” Active ingredients (just one): It was the same in both.

Pretty pink "lady" pills, via Shutterstock.

Pretty pink “lady” pills, via Shutterstock.

Inactive ingredients (several): the same in both, EXCEPT there was a red dye added to the “ladies” variety. How special.

I didn’t open the box, but I’ll bet that the dye made the tablets pink instead of their normal color. Because apparently, “ladies” like their laxatives pink.

Oh, there was one other major difference. The laxative for the ladies was about $1.50 more expensive from the regular kind.

So, it’s probably a good idea to keep your eyes open, read labels, compare products and keep your hand on your wallet before you buy.


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Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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