As a regulatory consultant for natural health products (NHPs), I get a lot of questions from clients, friends and family on how to differentiate between a NHP and a drug and what to look for when buying a NHP.

With the increasing popularity of healthy living, NHPs are no longer only found in health food stores. They are now on the shelves at your grocery store, at your retail store and even at the corner convenience store. The increased variety and availability of NHPs is great however, it is important to be able to differentiate between the licensed and unlicensed products in order to be able to choose a product that is safe and effective.

NHPs are regulated in Canada by the Natural & Non-prescription Health Products Directorate (NNHPD). Health Canada regulates all activities concerning NHPs from the registration of the product to the manufacturing, distribution, importation and advertising. When buying a NHP, the first thing to check is that the label has an 8 digit natural product number (NPN) or Homeopathic Medicine Number (DIN-HM). The NPN or DIN-HM means that the product is licensed for sale in Canada and has been reviewed for safety, efficacy and quality. Products without a NPN or DIN-HM have not been reviewed by Health Canada.

Other important information to look for on the label is a clearly visible therapeutic indication(s), complete ingredient list, directions for how to use the product safely and warning statements. Sometimes the therapeutic use is listed under the heading “Use(s)” or “Recommended Use/Purpose” or it may just appear on the label as a standalone statement such as “Provides antioxidants” or “Helps to metabolize fats”. The ingredients on the label are required to be separated into “medicinal/active ingredients” and “non-medicinal ingredients”. Unlike a food product, a Nutrition Facts Table is not required; however the quantity of each active ingredient per serving (e.g. 1 scoop) is mandatory. The directions for use specify the recommended daily dose (e.g. take 1 capsule with food) and if there are any potential interactions with medications and/or health conditions it will be listed in the warning section (e.g. “If you have diabetes or are taking hypoglycemic agents, please consult a health care practitioner”).

If you cannot find the NPN or DIN-HM on the label; the product may not be licensed for sale in Canada. If you are buying NHPs outside of Canada, these products have not been evaluated by Health Canada and therefore will not have an NPN. Different countries have different regulations for NHPs/dietary supplements so it is important to check the importation requirements for personal use before you purchase a NHP from another country otherwise, you may have difficulty bringing the product into Canada.