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October 23, 2000
Supplements: Lost in Lingo Limbo?
Ten important-to-know terms
By Linda Thieman

illustration: Jason Stout

So it's time to shop for vitamins and minerals, herbs and oils -- and you're swamped with supplements and bombarded by jargon. Even the savviest of consumers can end up befuddled and bemused by products such as "therapeutic-grade evening primrose, or "colloidal oatmeal." Well, panic no more. Our user-friendly guide will arm you with the terminology you'll need to maneuver through the aisles toward a sensible purchase.

Take heed: These are merely definitions of terms you'll see on bottles and boxes, words that manufacturers choose to print on their labels. Remember that definitions can't guard against inaccurate claims or substandard products. Be smart about the supplements you purchase.

  • adaptogen (n.) [uh-DAP-tuh-jin] An adaptogen is a general tonic that "tones" and enhances the whole body. Adaptogens, such as ginseng root, help the body "adapt" to change, aiding in the prevention of stress-related illness. Be advised, however, that ginseng can raise blood pressure and therefore should not be used by people who suffer from high blood pressure.

  • Ayurveda (n.) [eye-yuhr-VAY-duh] Ayurveda, Sanskrit for "science of life," is a system of natural medicine that originated in India some 5,500 years ago. Ayurvedic supplements are herbal in origin and they aim to restore balance. Each supplement can contain as many as 20 separate herbs in a single preparation and often includes whole plant products, as opposed to isolated chemicals. Many of the Ayurvedic supplements available in the United States today are imported from India, where quality control and sanitation standards can vary greatly. Before buying, check your sources.

  • bioavailable (adj.) [beye-oh-uh-VAYL-uh-buhl] Bioavailability is a good thing. Look for supplements that promise bioavailability -- it means that the nutrients are easy for the body to absorb and assimilate. A word of caution, however: Just because a product claims to have "enhanced bioavailability" doesn't mean that it does. Do your research. (See chelated and colloidal for examples.)

  • chelated (adj.) [KEE-lay-ted] chelation (n.) [kee-LAY-shuhn] To chelate means to attach a substance, like a protein, to a nutrient, such as a mineral. A good chelating agent can greatly aid in absorption of the nutrient -- a bad one can prevent it. For minerals like magnesium, for example, look for labels that include terms such as amino acid, aspartate, citrate, or malate, which help the body absorb the mineral by disguising it as a food. The terms suflate, gluconate, phosphate, and oxide indicate inadequate chelating agents; these are very easy and cheap to produce but aren't readily absorbed by the body.

  • colloidal (adj.) [kuh-LOY-duhl] There's a lot of buzz about colloidal mineral supplements these days. The term colloidal, as it applies to minerals, indicates that the minerals are suspended in a liquid. However, this does not mean they are dissolved in the liquid and perhaps more easy to absorb. In fact, colloidal minerals are too big to be absorbed by the cells and are therefore of little use. Look for other forms of chelation when it comes to minerals (see chelated ).

  • essential (adj.) [ee-SEHN-chuhl] You see the term essential in two completely different contexts: essential fatty acids (EFAs) and essential oils. In the case of EFAs, essential indicates that the body does not produce these important fats, which are crucial to its proper functioning. EFAs must be supplied by our food or by supplementation.

    Although EFAs are sometimes referred to as essential oils, the term essential oils usually refers to the potent, healing oils in plants that can be distilled and captured for human use. (For more on essential oils, see therapeutic-grade .)

  • phytosome (n., adj.) [FEYE-tuh-zohm] The term phytosome refers to both a patented technological process and the molecule that this process creates. A form of chelation (see chelated ), the phytosome process attaches a soybean-derived agent to herbal extracts. The manufacturer believes this process improves the absorption of the herbal extract in the intestine. Note: If you're avoiding hydrogenated fats, check the label before buying.

  • standardized (adj.) [STAN-duhr-deyezd] The common misconception about the term standardized is that it implies the supplement is carefully regulated by the U.S. government. In fact, at present the Food and Drug Administration only loosely regulates over-the-counter supplements. Extensive testing on the safety and efficiency of herbal supplements is not required, but the FDA can remove from the market any product that raises safety concerns.

    In fact, standardized means that a regulated dose and potency of the active ingredient within a berry or an herb has been established and adopted, often in areas outside of the U.S., such as parts of Europe. Standardized can also refer to some kind of third-party, voluntary control guidelines set up to regulate quality and purity, such as those of an independent testing/certification lab whose services are contracted out to supplement manufacturers.

  • synergy (n.) [SIN-uhr-jee], synergistic (adj.) [sin-uhr-JIS-tik] The term synergy comes from the Greek synergos, meaning "working together." In the world of supplements, if two ingredients are said to work together synergistically, it means that one ingredient enhances the other -- that the collective benefit is greater than that of two isolated chemicals or herbs. In other words, one plus one equals much more than two.

  • therapeutic-grade (adj.) [thayr-uh-PYOO-tik grayd] This term refers to the highest level of quality and purity available. In the case of essential oils, for example, the distinction is made between therapeutic-grade oils, used for healing, and lesser-quality, cheaper products, such as synthetic perfumes or flavoring oils.