There are so many products available today that promise so many benefits that it is very difficult to know what is good, and how much of what is good is actually good for you.

Vitamins and minerals are one example of this. Most health food shops have quite an exhaustive supply, with many different companies offering a variety of different combinations. One of the most common vitamins used is Vitamin C. Many people take quite large amounts of this vitamin, especially when suffering from a cold or flu. It is questionable how effective this is. Some people swear by this but there is now evidence that taking large amounts of this vitamin leaches out trace minerals which the body needs for optimal nutrition. It has also been noted that large doses of vitamin C can lead to kidney stones. Taking isolated vitamins in large doses has to be questionable as it does not mimic the way the vitamins are normally found and digested in food.

A common philosophy today is that even eating a good diet is not enough to get essential nutrients. Exhausted and polluted soil, the processing of food, pollution in the air, an unbalanced lifestyle - all can contribute to deficiency in the nutrients needed for health. However, perhaps taking large amounts of vitamins, minerals and other "natural products" can add further strain to the system. Except in certain circumstances where there may be serious deficiencies in the diet or in the absorptive powers of the body, or when a more serious disease situation has arisen, it would seem sensible to take the minimum amount of supplements needed to maintain a balanced intake of essential foods.

Basically, taking vitamins should not be a substitute for decent food. Ironically, when writing this column, the editorial in the Chronicle mentioned a report of the New England Journal of Medicine warning of "popular but untested alternative medicines that can be useless, dangerous or even deadly." The report stated that unregulated medicines should undergo the same rigorous Food and Drug Administration screening as conventional drugs. The Chronicle agrees with this.

However, we should be very careful about this. If the FDA has the power to regulate supplements and other "natural" products, the industry would most likely be taken over by the pharmaceutical industry who have the economic resources to do the testing that would be necessary. There is a battle for control of this lucrative market, and the pharmaceutical industry would like to have a larger slice of this pie.

This does not mean that products should not have decent quality control. Many of them already do self- regulate quite effectively, because it is in their interests to do so. However, FDA regulation could take all supplements off the shelf and perhaps make them available by prescription only, which takes all autonomy away and puts the authority back in the hands of doctors, who traditionally have not been particularly knowledgeable on diet and nutrition.

As our candidates for governor are saying, its education, education, education. We should all learn as much as we can, and basically keep it simple. If you are relatively well and have no major health problems, then there should be no need to take a large variety of different products. If your monthly supplements are costing you more than $40.00 or so, there may be something wrong. If you have specific health problems, then it makes sense to seek the advice of an appropriate health professional.