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Supplements don't take place of healthy food

What's the deal with "nutritional" supplements? How much nutrition do they actually provide? Recent issues of Consumer Reports on Health (www.consumerreportsonhealth.org) contain a few observations — and I've supplemented those with thoughts of my own.

Let's start at the store. I was in a grocery establishment yesterday (buying fruits, nuts and yogurt) and I saw an absolutely dizzying array of supplement options. More than 50 percent of Americans purchase and take supplements in some form. The top-sellers are fish oil, calcium, glucosamine and chondroitin, CoQ10 and magnesium. The first several don't surprise me — the last one does.

Consumer Reports suggests we take supplements to "ward off disease" or "to hedge our bets against a less-than-perfect diet."

Maybe there's a particularly compelling television advertisement that tells us, "Go forth and buy." Or a friend talks about a specific pain reliever and we want the same pain-free sleep she gets.

Many pharmacists say fish oil is the nutritional supplement people purchase most often. There's overwhelming research that shows omega-3 fatty acid in fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring) or in fish-oil supplements reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes and can deter that slow-but-deadly, artery-hardening experience. If seafood is too expensive for your budget or you're not a fan of herring and those fatty relatives, you may opt for fish-oil tablets. A reminder: Look for the "USP Verified" stamp that indicates the U.S. Pharmacopeia has looked at quality, purity and potency. In fact, look for that stamp with all your supplements.

Calcium supplementation is being rethought, so you might want to check in with your physician or pharmacist. I always think we should keep track of what amount of calcium we already get in our food before we decide to supplement. Think about vitamin D, as well — it helps calcium absorb. Did you know broccoli has calcium? Kiwi does, too. And a leading food source for both calcium and vitamin D is fortified orange juice.

For many, including my hardly-ever-complains husband, arthritis pain is effectively addressed with combinations of glucosamine and chondroitin. Consumer Reports call the research behind these supplements "decent evidence." But most experts say that if you do elect to try them, consult your doctor first, and after three months if it's not working, go to Plan B.

In the past, when people asked me what I thought of CoQ10, I was skeptical. There's just not a lot of solid, well-replicated research. It's usually described as a "vitamin-like compound" that helps with many conditions, including Parkinson's disease. Consumer Reports says it like this: "Don't swallow all the claims."

And then there's the mineral magnesium. Research finds people who consume magnesium (it's in fiber-rich foods like legumes and nuts, and especially almonds) are more likely to avert diabetes and may have better, long-term, blood-sugar control.

So there you have it. It's a reference list of sorts. But, consider this — with supplements (let's stay with magnesium as our example) the actual food source might be the better option. Almonds, for example, have magnesium and calcium.

And those tasty almonds just might be on sale at a grocery store near you.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 541-776-7371, Ext. 210.