Taking a dietary supplement has become a part of mainstream America. Once only available in small nutritional stores, supplements can now be found in today’s supermarkets, chain stores, next to over-the-counter drugs and on the Internet.

In June 2002, the editors of The Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) wrote “Insufficient vitamin intake is apparently a cause of chronic disease.” It stated that most Americans would benefit from a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement.

To discuss this topic, nutrition consultant Ed Bauman, Ph.D., director of the Bauman College, and natural chef training programs, will appear at Way of Life.

“Ideally all vitamins, minerals and other nutrients should be obtained from foods,” explains nutritionist Ed Bauman, Ph.D. “This was possible 100 or even 50 years ago when all foods were grown on fertile soils, were unrefined and unprocessed, and contained all the nutrients nature intended them to contain,” he said.

“But today, the food and soil are loaded with toxic chemicals and the nutritional value is drastically lowered by nutrient-destroying practices such as harvesting the produce before it is ripe,” he continues.

By some professional standards, purchasing certified organic assures more nutritionally rich food. The Web encyclopedia defines organic farming practices as “a way of farming that avoids the use of synthetic chemicals and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and follows the principles of sustainable agriculture.”

Defined by law in the United States, organic farming goals include protection of the soil from erosion and nutrient depletion. But when it comes to nutritional value, the studies show controversy on both sides of the issue.

What is agreed upon is the need for people to eat unprocessed, unrefined foods in gaining the nutritionally rich intake so necessary for health.

Fortunately in Santa Cruz, the almost year-round locally grown abundant farmers market makes eating fresh, seasonally ripened foods readily available. Supplementation then becomes just that, filling the nutritional gap by adding a daily vitamin to a good diet.

But how can we know which vitamins we should take as all vitamins are not created equal? What is the difference between natural and synthetic, why do some vitamins cost so much while others are so cheap?

When considering the purchase of a nutritional product, contaminants such as microbial pathogens, pesticides, heavy metals and even pharmaceuticals can enter through supplements.

Bauman suggests that “These contaminants are typically found in inexpensive products where the strength and purity of each batch is not consistent.”

How well a supplement is absorbed is another concern for consumers.

A supplement with the USP (US Pharmacopoeia) designation is the one Bauman recommends as the highest quality and has met standards such as the ability to dissolve, absorbability, amount of specific substance in each tap or capsule and purity and expiration.

Studying the sources of vitamins and their outcomes can feel like a full-time job. Fortunately, there are people who do spend their careers doing just that. Although you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure it all out, working with a licensed nutritionist can help.

Nutritional counselors are available privately through naturopathic clinics and even several of our local nutritional stores provide free professional support in choosing supplements most beneficial for health.

Although dietary supplements can be taken daily by most people to improve health, Bauman explains that supplements are also used in distinctly different ways: One is for preventive purposes as a means of meeting deficiencies and preventing the disease that may be associated. Another is for correcting deficiencies that are the result of a diet evaluation which includes lab tests and a professional understanding of the correlations between symptoms and deficiency.

The third way is for protection against environmental chemicals found in today’s water, food and air. Bauman explains that a regular use of certain phyto-nutients (plant based supplements) can minimize or neutralize exposure.

Another use of vitamins is for therapeutic or biological remedies. Bauman cites orthomolecular physicians in the Linus Pauling tradition and clinical nutritional consultants who use supplements to manage diagnosed health conditions.

But, he warns, such regimens need to be carefully monitored by qualified practitioners. A do-it-alone regime can cause further biochemical imbalances.

The old adage a little bit is good, more is better, can be dangerous when taking supplements. Interactions with foods, herbs, medications and prolonged high dosing can cause their own health problems.

What distinguishes a preventative dose is that a daily supplement is low in potency and naturally complex. A little goes along way, is a good rule of thumb.

Liz Koch is the Way of Life Health Educator. You can contact her at svreeken@santacruzsentinel.com.