As a college student in 1990, I got a side job at a health food store called The Bread Shop on Halsted Street in Chicago. I had some exposure to vegetarianism in high school, but never before had I heard about master cleanses, dairy-free diets, macrobiotics, and more. It took a few years for it all to sink in, but those creative food ideas changed a careless teenager into a relatively healthy adult. Most of you are surely more self-aware than I was back then, but there's always more to learn about being a healthy consumer. Our annual guide to shopping at the natural products store is filled with essential, aisle-by-aisle shopping tips and natural solutions for your wellness needs.

Looking back, I wonder how life would be different for me if I hadn't gained access to all those natural products at a formative age. What if you went to the store tomorrow and couldn't get organic fruits and vegetables, or even vitamin C? When it comes to supplements, it's surprisingly a valid concern.

Today, more than half of us take dietary supplements to help augment our diets and maintain good health, according to the FDA. You may be the type who pops a simple multivitamin every morning. Or you may have an elaborate supplement regimen that consists of pills, oils, and more. Whether you're a novice or expert, you probably enjoy being able to find what you need at your local store and having a reasonable assurance that what you pull from the shelf is safe. That's largely due to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which Congress passed in 1994 to ensure that supplements are safe and that manufacturers adhere to labeling standards and good manufacturing practices.

This year, legislation is coming before Congress that could affect your access to both supplements and information about them. First, the good news: A bill (HR 1545) in committee as I write would allow you to use your health savings accounts or flexible spending accounts to buy supplements with an FDA-approved health claim. Another bill (S 3546) would require manufacturers to submit reports to the FDA on adverse reactions to dietary supplements. Although the bill's intent is to flush out unsafe supplements, it could also show that most supplements are safe.

On the other hand, proposed legislation such as the Dietary Supplement Access and Awareness act (HR 3156) would regulate vitamins, minerals, and herbs as if they were prescription drugs. The result? Potential price hikes and restricted access to safe supplements, says David Seckman, executive director of the National Nutrition Foods Association, a nonprofit that represents many key players in the natural products industry.

More legislation that may affect your shopping experience is also in the works.

To learn about what's pending, go to www.nnfa.org and click Take Action. Then, let your senators or state representatives know what you think. And please write us, too.

We'd love to hear your thoughts.

editor in chief