We live in an age when good nutrition practices—eat lots of whole grains, fresh fruits and fresh vegetables; hold the fatty meat and hydrogenated vegetable oils—are simple, straightforward and widely available. But visit a well-stocked health food store, pharmacy or supermarket, and you’d never know it. The variety of dietary supplements can be overwhelming, with dozens of vitamins, minerals and extracts offered alone and in combinations targeted at every possible intersection of age, sex and activity. And that selection is a nutritional desert compared to the tropical rain forest–level diversity of supplements at more specialized stores.
Dietary supplements are big business in the U.S.: consumer sales in 2006 were estimated at $22.5 billion, with some 60 percent of Americans taking at least a daily multivitamin. But thanks to a regulatory structure designed more to promote the availability of supplements than to ensure that they deliver on their promises, it can seem impossible to figure out what—if anything—you should be taking. The options range from the almost appetizing juxtaposition of garlic, cranberry and soy concentrates to the downright macabre “glandulars.” And if cramming pituitary, prostate and pancreas extracts into a single pill doesn’t count as overkill, then surely another product containing vitamins, minerals and most of the biochemical intermediates of the cellular Krebs cycle must. The skeptical browser could be tempted to ask where to find the snake oil aisle.
This article was originally published with the title Getting to Know Nutraceuticals.