Local experts on what to consider when investing in supplements

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Camera IconNutritionist Eliza Hedley in the Love Beauty Skin Clinic. Credit: Jackson Flindell/The West Australian

When it comes to our health, in an ideal world, we put our trust in trained experts to guide us on what our bodies need and what we should steer clear of.

Yet, in an increasingly social media-fuelled universe, it’s influencers — with no health or medical background — who have become a key source of advice and endorsement for products they’re paid to promote.

From appetite suppressant lollypops to vitamins promising long and healthy locks, the supplements industry is a minefield, and a very lucrative one at that.

In Australia, is it currently worth $1.5 billion, according to Ibis World. It’s grown 1.8 per cent each year on average between 2017 and 2022.

The amount influencers are paid for promotional posts varies depending on their following, ranging from $75 to $4000, or a reported $63,000 for someone like fitness influencer Tammy Hembrow.

Part of this income will dry up from July 1, however, thanks to a new code from the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration.

Influencers will no longer be able to provide testimonials on social media for TGA listed products — which includes goods ranging from supplements to sunscreen — in exchange for money, gifts or freebies.

While this move supports the TGA’s aim of encouraging products to be chosen on the basis of clinical need, not through the persuasion of influencers, the confusion around supplements runs deeper than putting trust in social media advertising.

Supplements — a manufactured product designed to give you nutrients that might be missing from your diet — come in all shapes and forms at a range of price points.

And, like any health product, they weren’t all created equally, nor do people always use them in the way they are intended.

GOOGLE IS NOT YOUR GP

According to Perth-based nutritionist Eliza Hedley, many people self-diagnose what they think their body requires rather than finding out if they’re really lacking in any nutritional deficiencies.

“I think a lot of people just take supplements not understanding if their body even needs it, which is not only a waste of money, but also certain nutrients compete for absorption so you can be taking a supplement whilst depleting another one in your body,” she says.

Australian Medical Association WA president, Dr Mark Duncan-Smith, reiterates this.

“Before they take any supplement like that, they should see their trusted GP to find out whether they really need it, if there is an evidence-based reason they need it, rather them wasting their money on expensive urine,” he says.

The two agree blood tests, or further testing, should be done to assess which nutrients a person is deficient or low in so an expert can look at the results and correct the imbalances.

While taking supplements you don’t need isn’t necessarily harmful, except perhaps to your wallet, Hedley says it can be problematic.

“For example, iron and zinc compete for absorption – these are often seen together in multivitamins making it pointless as you’re not absorbing either to their full effect,” she says.

“Additionally, individuals can have sensitivities to supplements, whether it’s B vitamins or herbs, and taking too many supplements can just deplete other nutrients.”

NOT ALL SUPPLEMENTS ARE EQUAL

Not only are people bombarded with supplement advertising on social media, it has long extended to more traditional advertising.

Your favourite soap star promoting a brand on TV, a reality star on the side of the bus, a sports star on posters around the pharmacy or supermarket.

With thousands of supplement brands on the market, it may come as no surprise that they aren’t all created equally.

When it comes to less expensive supermarket or some influencer endorsed brands you’re not always getting what you paid for.

“Not only do a majority of them contain poor forms of synthetic nutrients, for example magnesium oxide, unmethylated B vitamins, zinc oxide, folic acid, all of which have the least bioavailability in the body and can actually negatively impact the individual’s health,” says Hedley.

She gives the example of folic acid being a synthetic form of folate that blocks folate receptors within cells; preventing naturally occurring folate from being utilised.

“Which makes no sense when we know how important folate is for pre-conception, pregnancy, nervous system health, iron status and energy production,” she said.

She explains these brands are often also a giant enteric or film-coated tablet which makes them less bioavailable and absorbed by the body.

CHOOSE WISELY

If you’re in the market for a supplement that has been recommended by a professional, Hedley recommends looking for a capsule or a powder.

“I’d also look for brands that are transparent in all their ingredients and look for supplements with good quality nutrients — such as magnesium glycinate, iron bisglycinate, zinc picolinate and methylated or ‘activated’ B vitamins,” she says.

With herbal supplements, it is also also important to let medical professionals know about what other medications you’re on as certain herbs can increase drug metabolism and this includes hormonal contraceptives, blood pressure and blood sugar medications.

QUALITY COUNTS

In her work as a naturopath for the past 20 years, Natalie McGrath is used to her clients showing her the latest product they are taking because they saw it spruiked on Instagram or TikTok.

“I’ve seen so many influencers preaching about a product and you can see that the container hasn’t even been opened,” she says, adding she is encouraged by the changing TGA rules.

From this experience she was inspired to develop a product that she wanted to be more effective, better quality and safe that could support good skin health. This is how GLOWSO — a collagen based supplement for skin — was born.

“Researching and developing a supplement is the exciting part for me,” she says. “Developing my ultimate dream formulations is like a little kid in a lolly shop. Choosing incredible ingredients to achieve incredible results.”

Ingredients include high-quality bioactive collagen peptides and Australian botanicals including native Kakadu plum — the world’s highest natural source of vitamin C.

The product is registered on the Australian register of Therapeutic Goods by the TGA, which she says entails an in-depth review, regular audits and inspections, stability testing and has strict rules of what can and can’t be said when advertised.

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