How to Tell if a Supplement is Trustworthy
Supplements are an important part of a healthy diet, but it can be overwhelming trying to decide which ones to buy. Today, I’m talking all about choosing safe and trustworthy dietary supplements!
I’m a big supporter of supplements – they’re 100% necessary to support a healthy plant-based diet, good insurance for those days when our food intake isn’t ideal, and certain supplements have shown to be beneficial for improving health and keeping us well.
But there are a lot of different supplements out there – some with evidence-based support for their efficacy and some that fall in the category of pseudoscience. As a consumer, it can be very difficult to tell the difference between the two. So today, I’ve partnered with New Hope Network and their Inside the Bottle Partners to give you an easy-to-swallow guide to savvy supplementation!
While the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t approve dietary supplements before they go to market, there are a few ways the FDA regulates their production and marketing, which is similar to how foods are regulated. One is through the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act which states that supplements are not allowed to claim to prevent, treat, or cure a disease – only drugs can carry these claims. You’ve probably seen this disclaimer on supplements labels with a little asterisk next to it.
But there are three types of dietary claims that *are* allowed on supplement labels: structure/function claims, claims of general well-being, and claims related to nutrient deficiencies. Structure/function claims describe how an ingredient is intended to support or maintain normal healthy structures or functions. Some examples include – “Calcium builds strong bones.” or “Fiber maintains bowel regularity.” General well-being claims go something like this – “A daily multivitamin supports optimal health.”
Nutrient deficiency claims describe a benefit related to a nutrient deficiency disease, for example – “An adequate intake of vitamin B12 prevents pernicious anemia.” But these claims must also state how widespread the disease is in the US. These claims aren’t pre-approved by FDA, but the manufacturer does have to notify the FDA about them within 30 days of marketing the supplement – and – they have to be able to prove that the claim is truthful and not misleading with supporting clinical studies.
The next way supplements are regulated is through the Current Good Manufacturing Practices regulation, which requires supplement makers to follow guidelines ensuring the quality of their products. This includes producing and testing final products to verify that they’re free of contamination and that the ingredients on the label are actually what’s in the bottle. Manufacturers have to keep records of their compliance with these practices and are subject to random facility inspections by the FDA.
Finally, supplement companies must report any serious adverse events that occur from the use of their products to the FDA within 15 days of notification of the event. These reports are usually what lead to the FDA to pull products from the market. Government regulation aside – supplement companies themselves are ultimately the ones who must verify the safety and efficacy of their products, and there are several checkpoints along the supply and production chain where they do so.
First, sourcing and traceability. The supply chain is complex and multi-layered. These days raw ingredients are purchased from multiple suppliers all over the globe. It’s the supplement company’s job to obtain what are called “certificates of analysis” that verify the identity and potency of each ingredient and make sure they fall below safety standards for contaminants.
Some companies will go a step further and instead of relying on the supplier, independently test each batch of an ingredient they receive. Still, there are other supply chain factors that companies need to consider and be able to explain to the consumer about individual ingredients, including farming methods, processing, and extraction that are important but not necessarily something you can test for.
Another factor in production is system deliverability, which basically means – is the supplement a liquid, tablet, gummy, soft gel, or capsule. Each system can affect the bioavailability of the product depending on the ingredients. One isn’t necessarily better than the other but companies should be able to provide evidence supporting their chosen delivery system and information about the raw materials used.
Soft-gel, for example, individually tests every batch of its raw ingredients and provides this info to customers.
Third-Party Testing of Supplements
Finally, companies should also be conducting third-party testing on their final products. Once you’ve established the identity and safety of a product, the most important thing is verifying that it works! Good companies rely on scientific research to support the efficacy of their products.
They may have conducted independent studies on their product or be able to provide robust evidence from peer-reviewed, human research on the efficacy of nutritive ingredients in their product. And dosage matters. Quality formulations use the exact same ingredient form and dosage that was used in clinical studies and showed a benefit.
While many companies play by the rules, there are some that get around industry safeguards, finding ways to obscure the truth about the content and efficacy of their products.
Supplement Safety Concerns
So now let’s talk about a few unscrupulous practices consumers need to look out for…
1. Pixie dusting
In order for a supplement to be efficacious – meaning it does what it’s intended to do – you need the proper dose. For example, if research shows that 3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids are needed to have beneficial effects on heart health, then a supplement containing just a couple hundred milligrams is not going to be efficacious.
Some supplement companies will boast that their products contain certain beneficial ingredients but only include minimal amounts – not the amount shown to be efficacious. That’s pixie dusting. Savvy consumers should always review the literature on a specific ingredient and make sure the product they’re buying contains enough of this active ingredient.
2. Borrowing science
Similar to the previous issue, some companies will boast the benefits of their product by relying on research conducted on similar but not identical ingredients. This happens frequently with probiotics. Probiotics are strain-specific. Any science supporting their benefits is tied to specific strains, not just the species.
For example, Lactobacillus reuteri is a species of bacteria, and knowing that a product contains it is not enough. You have to also know the specific strain of L. reuteri used and make sure that strain in your product has actually been researched and shown to be beneficial in the correct amount.
3. Nature identicals
Some companies claim to include all-natural ingredients when they’re really using synthetic equivalents. While synthetic ingredients aren’t necessarily unsafe or less effective, if a company isn’t disclosing their use, it’s shady. For one, synthetic ingredients may be less expensive.
The problem is – testing for this can be difficult and not all companies do it. Trust transparency center recently tested a bunch of curcumin products and found that 1/3 that claimed to be natural were actually synthetic.
How to pick a trustworthy supplement
1. Look for evidence-based ingredients
Product labels should list all ingredients, both nutritive ones and excipient ingredients. Excipients are any ingredients in a supplement other than the nutritive ingredients. And all of the nutritive ingredients—sometimes referred to as active ingredients — should have evidence of efficacy.
Look on the company’s website for studies backing up the claims on the label. For example, Sabinsa provides numerous references on their site showing the efficacy of both their specific curcumin complex and curcumin in general.
2. Look for proper dosages
Check to see if the product contains enough of the nutritive ingredient. Does the amount match up with the amount shown to be efficacious in scientific studies?
Some studies use a specific standardized ingredient. Make sure a claim on a product is supported by a study that actually used that specific standardized ingredient.
3. Look for third-party testing seals
Different third-party testing companies offer different services – from auditing production facilities to ensure GMP-compliance to testing final products for ingredient identity and quantity, heavy metals and contaminants, and banned substances.
A few reputable testing companies include USP, NSF International, Consumer Labs, and the Natural Products Association. Each has a certification seal and you can search their websites for lists of verified products.
A caveat to this is – not all companies that *don’t* use third-party testing are unreputable; some use their own labs to verify product quality and safety. Good companies will share the results of these internal tests when requested.
4. Look for companies that belong to trade associations such as the Natural Products Association, United Natural Products Alliance, or the Council for Responsible Nutrition, which provide members with guidelines for the production of safe, efficacious dietary supplements
- No website and/or no contact information. If you can’t get a hold of a company – it’s a major red flag that things are not above board. In fact, the FDA requires this information to be on product packaging.
- Major discrepancies in product prices. If a product costs $30 bucks on the company website but $10 on Amazon – something is up. This may be an indication of pixie dusting or that the product does not actually contain the amount of the nutritive ingredient that it says on the label.
- Proprietary blends that do not list specific ingredients or dosage. If you don’t know what’s in it, how can you trust it?
And that’s the cliff notes on selecting supplements!
Depending on the specific supplement or ingredient, there may be more factors to consider, which is why it’s so so important to review the science before popping something in your mouth.
Finally, make sure you run any supplements by your health care provider. Even if a product is safe and trustworthy – it might not be safe for you; certain ingredients can interact with medications or have unwanted side effects for individuals with certain health conditions.
For more supplementation tips, check out these posts! >>
For more information on prenatal supplements, grab the FREE Plant-Based Juniors Supplement Guide>>
And check out my video DHA Supplementation During Pregnancy: How Much is Enough?>>
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Weigh-in: Do you take any dietary supplements? What do you think about when looking for trustworthy supplements?
*This post is sponsored by New Hope Network and their Inside the Bottle Partners, but all opinions are my own. I thank you for your support of Whitney E. RD-approved partnerships that make this website possible.