Navigating The Supplement Isle
If you’re confused about supplements- not knowing where to start, what to look for, or which brand to buy, you’re not alone.
In this blog I wanted to share some tips and tools which you can hopefully use to navigate the supplement industry.
One of the the most common questions that comes up within my coaching practice surrounding supplements is “are they regulated?”
The answer is sort of.
In the U.S, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) technically is in charge of overseeing the supplement industry. However it is up to the supplement manufacturers and distributors of supplements to evaluate the safety of their products before they market them to ensure that they meet all FDA requirements.
In other words, the FDA sets standards, but it’s only AFTER a product has been marketed that the FDA actually gets involved if a standard hasn’t been adhered to. The FDA is charged with taking action against any misrepresented or adulterated dietary supplement or product after it hits the market.
This means that the supplement industry is unfortunately, largely self regulated. The only real rules the FDA has is that the product must be “safe”, and whatever the product claims to contain on the package must be what is actually within the supplement.
So what is considered “safe?”
The FDA states that it is up to the manufacturer to ensure that the products it produces and distributes are safe; that any claims about the product are not false or misleading; and that the products comply with the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act and all FDA standards.
The FDA also requires that all supplements be produced within a facility that adheres to “Good Manufacturing Practices” or is GMP certified. What this means is that these practices are in place to help ensure that supplements are honest in their ingredients and purity (you can actually call the manufacturer and ask for the certificate for the specific batch they certified).
So while the FDA sets the standards, from there it’s really an honor system to get a product on the market.
This is why it’s so incredibly important to become a smart consumer when it comes to choosing a supplement.
Just because anyone can walk into the store and purchase vitamins or supplements without a prescription, or order them online with the swipe of a finger, doesn’t mean using supplements should be taken lightly.
Many supplements can have negative effects based on bio individuality, interactions with other supplements or medications, or if someone is at a certain stage of life such as pregnancy or trying to conceive.
Anything you put into your body should be taken seriously.
So before you buy any supplement, always ask yourself “Why am I taking this?”
Supplements can help prevent nutritional gaps, aid in replenishing stores of essential vitamins and minerals, and provide therapeutic support (as a complement or alternative to medication), but I see far too many people pounding way too many pills, powders and supplements in the name of “health.”
It’s important to have a “why” when deciding on whether to use or take a specific supplement.
For example, do you really need to take Vitamin D? Are you even deficient? Don’t guess, test! Get your levels checked and then pick out a supplement - and a dosage- that meets your needs.
Five Factors to Consider for Supplement Quality and Safety
1. Sourcing- You want to buy from brands that are clear about what their ingredients are and where they come from. Sourcing is a huge sales point for many supplement brand manufacturers. As with food, where ingredients come from is very important. However it can be really easy to be swayed by misleading marketing.
For example the term organic may make you think a product is free from all toxins, pesticides and contaminants, but organic doesn’t necessarily ensure those things. Certified 100% Organic means that all the ingredients in a product have been grown or raised according to the USDA's organic standards, which are the rules for producing foods labeled organic. Certified Organic requires that 95- 99% of the ingredients follow the rules.
(for more on what organic means specifically as it relates to supplements click here) But according to an annual summary of pesticide data, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) revealed that a whopping 21% of organic samples tested contained contaminants and/or pesticide residue.
So don't assume that a specific term (like natural or organic) means nothing undesirable is in it. Always do your own research. Some brands, like Megafood (a whole food supplement brand) actually test their soil for heavy metals and contaminants.
Brands that go the extra mile with sourcing and testing will be more costly but cheaper options are often full of stuff you don’t want like pathogens, heavy metals, unnecessary binders and fillers and overall low quality ingredients.
2. Additives, binders and fillers- As a general rule it’s optimal to avoid any ingredients that are unnecessary or will add more toxins. In my opinion, the best supplements use the least fillers.
There are many reasons a company might use fillers, flavorings, colors, and other additives- to make production easier and faster, to cut costs, or to make the supplement more appealing to the eyes and palate. But the bottom line is less fillers typically means a more bio available high quality supplement.
You also want to check for artificial colors, flavors and sweeteners which can cause adverse reactions in people who are sensitive. Other ingredients to avoid are cellulose, gelatin, stearic acid, magnesium stearate, carrageenan, silicon dioxide, titanium dioxide and potassium sorbate.
3. Testing- This one can be hard to navigate however there are some third party certifications that can be helpful. Two seals of approval, that deal with the identity, potency, safety, and alterations of a supplement are USP Verified and the NSF International. These certifications confirm that what’s on the label is what’s in the product and that there are NO contaminants. However, be aware that there are some things these certifications don’t account for, like GMO use or efficacy. A supplement company has to pay for their product to be certified, so it’s also worth mentioning that as a result, products that carry these certifications tend to be more costly.
I can also recommend the following two websites if you want to dig deeper into research on alternative remedies.
Clinicaltrials.gov: A database of clinical trials conducted around the world.
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (nccih.nih.gov): This federal government agency oversees scientific research on medical practices and therapies that fall outside the field of conventional medicine.
There is also a consumer section on the National Product Associations website with extensive information on supplements, regulations, and buying tips (npainfo.org ).
4. Efficacy- Does the supplement work? By now I think I’ve seen it all, gummy vitamins, powders, extracts, capsules, to probiotics with special coating to help the bacteria within resist stomach acid.
But what does all this mean?
How can you be sure a product really works, and if your body can absorb it?
First, if a company claims they have some sort of special technology or delivery method to enhance absorbability, the best approach is to research the technology or method they are advertising to see if there is any legitimacy to their claim.
Ultimately, the best source of information on efficacy is hearing about how real consumers have responded to the product. A Google search of any supplement will usually yield plenty of reviews, or you can look at Amazon and read reviews there.
Even if you purchase supplements elsewhere, many online retailers (like Amazon), allow consumers to post reviews which may be helpful in determining efficacy.
Additional factors to consider are whether or the supplement is or is not in an active, usable, absorbable or bio available form. There are many different forms of nutrients and some are much easier to absorb than others.
For example, magnesium is available a lot of different forms, like magnesium chloride, sulphate, bisglycinate, taurate, or citrate. Some of these are easier to absorb then others and each offers different benefits. So it’s worth doing your research or working with a professional to find the right form for you.
Certain nutrients can be harder to absorb for some, such as vitamin B (try the methylcobalamin form) and folate (look for 5-MTHF). This is especially the case if you’re over 40, as digestion starts to grow sluggish with age or if you have a GI illness or compromised nutrient absorption. You want to make sure the form of the supplement will be a form your body can use.
Also, if the specific vitamin or supplement you’re interested in requires the presence of other ingredients in order to be absorbed optimally, are they included? An example here is curcumin and biperine (black pepper extract). When combined they tend to have a greater effect on inflammation, digestion, reducing pain and fighting cancer
Bio individuality also plays a huge role in efficacy so keep that in mind. By this I mean a supplement that works really well for your friend, may do absolutely nothing for you. Different people have different capacities for nutrient absorption. Much of this can depend on personal health, diet, and even genetics.
The purchasing channel you use to obtain a supplement can also be an indicator of efficacy. For example, a practitioner formulated supplement sold by the practitioner themselves usually increases the likelihood that the product is effective. Most practitioners won’t manufacture and/or market/sell a product to their clients or patients that doesn’t work.
But it’s always important to be proactive and do your own research.
5. Research- The scientific rigor of a company can be important. Factors worth considering are how much they invest into research and development, and if they have a team of scientists or doctors who help consult on the formulation of their products. Experts like herbalists, doctors, or scientists can have a tremendous impact on supplement quality and efficacy.
One thing to keep in mind when it comes to research is that anything found in nature cannot be patented the same way that a drug can. In other words if a company does a study on their product, someone else can come along and manufacture the exact same thing. This doesn’t make research very cost effective for supplement companies, which is why many opt to not invest much in research and development. Some notable exceptions are Thorne, Metagenics, and Microbiome Labs.
Of course, because these companies invest more into their products, this means their products tend to carry a higher price point.
It’s also important to remember that a product containing multiple ingredients will have a different impact then a product containing only one. For example 500mg of turmeric in a product containing multiple other ingredients may have a different impact then a product that only contains 500ng of turmeric, because nothing operates in isolation. The efficacy of a product containing multiple ingredients depends on how well those ingredients do or don’t work together.
A Note On Proprietary Blends
The other thing to watch out for is “proprietary blends.”
A “proprietary blend” is a group of ingredients that discloses every ingredient, but not the exact amount of each ingredient.
They often make their appearance on product labels with trademarked names like “Detox Blend” or “Adrenal Blend.”
The total weight of the blend per serving is indicated, but never the exact amounts of each ingredient. To make it even more confusing, some proprietary blends contain other proprietary blends. A blend within a blend!
Companies often use proprietary blends as a catchy marketing technique or to protect their formula from being copied by competitors. Unfortunately sometimes it can also be used as a way to disguise an ineffective mix (a blend may contain a lower portion of the active ingredients).
I have a few issues with proprietary blends. First, since the individual ingredient amounts are not disclosed, it’s impossible for you to know how much you’re actually getting. You could be wasting your money on a formula that does not have adequate quantities of the active ingredients.
Also, if you have an allergy or a reaction to something in the formula, it will be that much harder to figure out which ingredient is causing the issue.
And lastly, the proportions of ingredients in a given product could change drastically without the company needing to disclose the change. In other words as long as they keep the ingredients the same within a proprietary blend, they can manipulate the amounts as they see fit. This means that a product that once worked for you can suddenly become completely ineffective.
The Bottom Line
1. Supplements may be easy to obtain, but that doesn't mean you should take their consumption lightly. Always ask yourself WHY you want (or need) to take a supplement prior to any purchase.
2. Determine what is (and is not) important to you when evaluating supplements. Knowing what you value will help you narrow down your search and help you select companies whose values align with your own.
3. Be sure to do your own research into supplement brands and what they claim. Take the time to read consumer reviews, or seek the help or opinion of a qualified professional.
4. Remember, the supplement industry is largely self regulated. While there are guidelines and standards in place, they are only enforced AFTER they have been violated, so be sure to remain proactive in your own reading and research about supplement safety.
5. Be cautious about proprietary blends and always avoid unwanted fillers and additives.