Choosing your health supplement

  • Health
  • Sunday, 27 Apr 2003

THERE is a growing trend to consume health and nutritional supplements to maintain health and general wellbeing. For a person who has never taken health supplements before, it’s not uncommon to be confused by the wide range and variety of health products available on the shelves in a pharmacy or Chinese medical hall.  

To add to the bewilderment, sales promoters will extol the virtues of their respective products, rendering the decision making process even more complicated. So how do we choose the right health supplements for ourselves? Before we answer the question, we need to clarify some misconceptions and confusion regarding the quality of health and nutritional supplements. 


Imported is better

There is this persistent prejudice among the local populace that imported products are superior to those made locally. There may be some justification to this belief, especially for certain high precision equipment or proprietary products.  

However, in the case of health and nutritional supplements, they are classified as food in many countries, even in some developed countries. Therefore the regulations with regards to the manufacturing, sales and distribution of such products are not subjected to control by the respective Drug Control Authorities of these countries. As a result, the quality and efficacy of some of these imported supplements leave much to be desired. 

However, Malaysia is among the few countries in the world where the manufacture, sales and distribution of health supplements are regulated by the local Drug Control Authority (DCA). In line with the regulatory requirements, the manufacturing facility for health supplements must comply with Good Manufacturing Practice standards set by the DCA.  

Although the level of biologically active ingredients in a herbal supplement is not controlled by the DCA at this point of time due to its complex nature, at least the safety aspects in terms of microbial and toxic metal contamination are regulated and the manufacturing environment controlled.  


Confusing label claims 

Besides the wide variety of health supplements available, there is also confusing label claims on the content among the same category of products. For example, certain brands of Ginkgo biloba products claim to contain 2,000mg of Ginkgo leaves while others only contain 40mg of Ginkgo extract.  

The fact is, in the manufacture of Ginkgo biloba extract, about 50g of dried leaves are used to produce 1g of extract, i.e. the herb to extract ratio is 50:1. This means that a Ginkgo product containing 2,000mg of leaves is equivalent to 40mg of extract.  

Many consumers have been misled into purchasing products that they thought are cheap because they contain more in terms of weight.  

Even if the products do contain the same amount of extract, the quality of the extract in terms of active ingredients may vary greatly. Equally important, toxic compounds may not conform to the level stipulated by the German Commission E Monograph. In the case of Ginkgo biloba, the level of the toxic Ginkgolic acid should be less than 5p.p.m. 


Standardised extracts vs crude herbs 

There are many herbal products in the form of capsules that use crude herbs instead of standardised herbal extract in the formulation.  

Crude herbs are medicinal plants (roots, leaves, fruits and so on) that have been dried and ground into powder.  

Herbal extracts are produced by using solvent such as water, alcohol, acetone to extract the biologically active ingredients in the herbs and then spray-dried into powder. Some of the herbal extracts are standardised against certain markers (active ingredients) to ensure a more consistent level of active ingredients in the extract. 


Stick to established and reputable brands 

Owing to the wide disparity in the quality and price of health supplements, it is very difficult for an average consumer to decide which are the good and value-for-money health supplements. The best bet is to rely on established brands from ethical manufacturers who will go to great lengths to maintain the quality and efficacy of their products.  

To demonstrate their commitment to quality, ethical manufacturers will need to have well-equipped in-house quality control laboratories to test the level of active ingredients in their products above those required by the DCA in terms of microbial and toxic metal contamination. The manufacturing facility should preferably comply with the ISO quality management system. In addition, their operations should be transparent and visitors are allowed to have a first-hand look at their manufacturing facility.  


Tips for choosing good health supplements 

Choosing a good health supplement among the many available is not easy, especially to those who are not knowledgeable in this area.  

Attractive packaging design, fully imported, fancy label claims and price alone are not good criteria. Below are some tips for your guidance: 

· Health supplements should be registered with the Drug Control Authority and carry the registration No. (MAL_________________) and “Approved by the Ministry of Health, Malaysia”. 

· Choose time-tested and established brands from ethical manufacturers, preferably with in-house QC laboratory and ISO quality management system. 

· Choose products containing clinically proven, standardised herbal extracts. 

· Choose products that have undergone a patented or proprietary process to ensure better absorption. 

· Consider recommendations from satisfied users with no vested interest in the sales of the product. 

· Consult your health care professionals who are knowledgeable in health supplements. 

Since your health deserves the best, ensure that you do not compromise on quality. 


  • The above article is contributed by Thomson panel of health professionals. For further information, e-mail  

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