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