NORTHFIELD — Pharmacist Steven Chang is a scientist who believes that if a nutritional supplement really works, its effectiveness can be isolated, measured and reproduced.
Chang, 57, of Absecon, owns Essential Elements, a nutrition and dietary supplement store on Tilton Road in Northfield.
He also is the registered pharmacist and owner of Parkway Pharmacy in Atlantic City.
In one role, he dispenses prescription medicines that go through rigorous clinical testing by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In the other, he dispenses nutritional supplements that undergo little scientific scrutiny.
But Chang said that does not mean the pills, tablets and drops he sells at Essential Elements for everything from achy joints to high cholesterol are any less effective in helping people recover from illness or injury or simply feel better.
“We don’t sell hope,” he said. “We approach nutritional health scientifically with evidence-based protocols. It’s not hearsay. We sell real-world solutions.”
Nutritional supplements are getting more government oversight. The Office of Dietary Supplements was created in 2001 under the National Institutes of Health to develop an evidence-based review program.
About half of America takes a daily supplement ranging from vitamins to herbal teas, according to a study published last year in the Journal of Nutrition. The Nutrition Business Journal estimates it is a $30 billion business — a big reason why more retail shelves are dedicated to those little brown bottles.
Nutritional supplements have their proponents and critics. New Jersey native Dr. Mehmet Oz regularly touts fish oils and other compounds on television. Essential Elements has a display case with the celebrity doctor’s photo and dietary supplements featured on the show.
Chang, a graduate of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, said he keeps up on medical journals that investigate the health benefits or risks of various supplements. Not every product is created equally, Chang said.
The September issue of Consumer Reports found a minefield of problems in nutritional supplements, from products that make unsubstantiated claims to products adulterated with prescription drugs.
“You have a lot of adulterated product on the market,” Chang said.
Chang noted that some supplements carry their own warning labels. They can have adverse effects on liver or kidney function, especially if the customer is taking other medications.
He recommends his customers consult with him before adding a supplement to their daily health regimen. He and his staff help customers decide what, if any, products might help them.
“We try to be neutral and make our recommendations based on evidence,” he said. “We ask a lot of questions. Generally, these products are safe. But are they the right product?”
Store manager Cindy Sutton, 37, of Egg Harbor Township, said several area physicians are true believers in the health benefits of supplements. “A lot of doctors send their patients here.”
Each month, Chang offers an in-store seminar about nutrition as it relates to cancer, diabetes, weight loss, heart disease, stress and other monthly topics.
Customers sometimes notice an immediate improvement after taking a supplement. Chang said this often can be attributed to a placebo effect because customers in most cases expect to feel better. It is only after months of improvement that the customer can reliably credit the supplement or some other positive change in lifestyle, he said.
Some patients might resist a doctor’s unwelcome advice to lose weight or get more exercise, but customers at Essential Elements have the same thing in common: They are proactively looking to improve their health, Chang said. This positive attitude goes a long way toward improving the way they feel, he said.
“Psychologically, you have to be ready for it,” he said.
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