As a scientist and researcher, Mahtab Jafari, PharmD, is always being tapped by her students, friends, and family about dietary supplements—which are good, which are bad, which work, and which do not.
With so much frequency to these questions, she took her passion for educating and combating misinformation and turned the topic into a book: The Truth About Dietary Supplements: An Evidence-Based Guide to a Safe Medicine Cabinet.
Jafari, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of California, Irvine and director of the UCI Center for Healthspan Sciences, approached her new book with an eye for actionable insights into the healthy use of dietary supplements.
“The main reason for writing this book was to answer pressing questions I received daily,” Jafari said. People close to her shared stories about the negative health impacts after taking supplements without consulting a healthcare provider and it worried her what others might be going through.
Fueled by alluring ads for a slimmer waistline or a simple pill to help energize you from the inside out, Jafari explained that the internet, social media, and even mainstream media are the primary drivers of misinformation about the supplement industry.
“The problem with the internet is that it is very difficult for people to distinguish between real science and pseudoscience, and to really understand the efficacy and health effects of supplements,” Jafari said.
One chapter in her new book is entirely dedicated to debunking the myths surrounding vitamins and dietary supplements to help educate people about what they need to know.
In her book, Jafari shines a light on the role regulatory bodies play in ensuring the safety and efficacy of supplements. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration does not oversee or approve supplements prior to marketing, and only intervenes when a product has caused actual harm to people.
“I believe the FDA is doing the best it can with limited funding, but it needs more resources in order to pay more attention to the supplement industry before their products are on the market,” Jafari said. From a public health policy standpoint, Jafari advocates for increased scrutiny and regulation before a new supplement is marketed to ensure public safety.
At UCI, Jafari spends her time in the lab conducting research on the health benefits of plant extracts. Her research experience showed her that some supplement labels do not list all the ingredients, as explained in the chapter “What’s In That Pill? Is Your Dietary Supplement Safe?”
Jafari dedicates class time to equipping her students, the next generation of healthcare providers and scientists, with an evidence-based background on supplements—preparing them to think critically and investigate claims rather than just accepting them. As a professor, she tries to impart both the clinical aspects of pharmacology and a more mindful approach rooted in self-care.
Her approach to training pharmacy students includes ensuring that all students understand the importance of taking a comprehensive patient history to have a holistic view of all the medications and dietary supplements a patient is taking to understand the potential interactions between prescribed medications and supplements.
By weaving in principles of culturally competent and inclusive care and social determinants of health, she teaches her students the impact of providing high-quality patient care and the role pharmacists play in guiding consumers. Jafari cannot stress enough that consumers should remain critical and mindful of individual needs when it comes to purchasing any type of dietary supplement.
“Ask yourself the basic but fundamental questions: ‘Do I really need it?’ ‘Who makes it?’ ‘Who sells it?’ ‘What is the science behind this?’”