If you are shopping for supplements online – STOP. Be sure to ask (and read the answer to) the following questions before making any purchase!

1. What are the ingredients in the supplement?

Believe it or not, the supplement industry is essentially not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. This means supplements can be sold without going through a rigorous testing or approval process so long as they say their product is “not intended to cure, prevent, diagnose, or treat” any disease. Legitimate supplement companies are required by law to have either a Supplement Facts or Ingredient List. While the Supplement Facts page lists the actual amount of each ingredient (usually in grams, milligrams, IU, or mcg) the Ingredient List puts them in order of prominence in the formula. 

Look for: Supplement Facts or Ingredients list on the label. If they don’t have one, they may not be a trustworthy source for your supplements.

Supplement Facts

2. What are the benefits of this supplement? 

As we mentioned above, supplements are not legally allowed to say they can prevent or cure anything, so take a closer look at their stated benefits. Are they making claims that if you take this supplement you will have a radical transformation? Many experts remind us that the old saying “if it seems to good to be true it probably is” applies in the world of supplements.

Look for: reasonable description of possible benefits, disregard the hype. Examine any clinical studies (if provided). Learn more about How To Read a Clinical Study here

3. What are the side effects of taking this pill?

While they may tout the main benefits of taking their product in big letters, the side effects (secondary, usually unpleasant symptoms) are usually in much smaller print, if they are listed at all. While supplements are generally considered safe, according to an op-ed in the NY Times there are 50,000 adverse reactions every year. Some supplements can also interact with prescription medications; for example St. John’s Wort, an over-the-counter treatment commonly taken for depression negatively reacts with prescription depression medications like Xanax.

Look for: interactions using the Drug Interaction Checker from Medscape. You can also look up benefits and side effects on reputable medical websites like WebMD and the Mayo Clinic. WebMD lists them according to how effective they are (“likely effective”, “likely ineffective”, etc.) while Mayo Clinic rates them for effectiveness using grades A to F.

4. Do I really need this supplement? 

“Take your vitamins” is something you probably heard from your mom as a kid. Indeed, vitamins, minerals, and amino acids that make up the majority of supplement products contain nutrients essential to life. However, getting your vitamins like vitamin C or vitamin E from taking it in pill form does not seem to seem to have the same benefits as eating foods rich in these nutrients. 

According to Consumer Reports, studies show vitamin E does not prevent prostate cancer, multivitamins do not prevent cancer or cardiovascular disease, and omega-3 pills do not protect the heart. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that the best strategy for optimum health is by eating nutrient rich foods, going to supplements only as a secondary source. 

Look for: Supplement ingredients that have been shown to be effective such as calcium, potassium, vitamin D, or vitamin B12. Women should take folic acid and iron from age 14-50 and should be cautioned against taking too much vitamin A as it may cause birth defects. 

Bonus: Use Super Tracker sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to get a personalized nutrition and activity plan for free. 

5. Is this supplement tested by an independent laboratory?

As we mentioned earlier, the supplement industry is supposed to police itself when it comes to the safety and purity of their ingredients. They are required to follow cGMP (Current Good Manufacturing Practices) and, while many of them may stick a GMP label on the bottle there is no official seal given for following cGMP. According to an article in Natural Products insider, over a 3-year period the FDA cited 70% of supplement facilities they inspected for GMP violations. 

And even the biggest companies have been known to include ingredients that are either different from what is listed on the label or not mentioned at all. Canadian researchers examined 56 supplements sold in the U.S. and Canada using DNA bar coding technology and found that nearly 60% contained plant species not listed on the label, 32% used product substitution, and more than 20% had fillers like rice and wheat that could cause allergies. The New York state attorney general conducted a similar study of supplements sold at major retailers including GNC, Walgreens, and Walmart and found similar noncompliance. Although some nutrition manufacturers feel DNA barcoding is not a good testing method, most agree the supplement industry is in need of reform.  

Look for: Supplements that have been tested by an outside laboratory. Some of the biggest ones are US Pharmacopeia (USP) a non-profit organization in the US older than the FDA that ensures what is on the label of your supplement is really inside. You can find a list of companies with the USP seal here.

Independent laboratory seals

As consumer concern for purity of ingredients has increased demand for third-party certified products, another independent laboratory named UL recently unveiled their own seal for consumers for use on supplements.

The NSF is an international organization that has been around since 1944 and tests a variety of consumer products for health and safety concerns. You can search for dietary supplements that carry the NSF seal here. 

In conclusion:

  • Supplements are not allowed by law to promise to cure, prevent, diagnose, or treat any disease. If a supplement promises something that seems too good to be true, it likely is.
  • Supplements should be clearly labeled as to all their ingredients.
  • Look up all the ingredients for side effects and interaction warnings if you are taking other medications.
  • Be sure the ingredients have been verified by an outside third party (USP, UL, NSF).

If you feel you are deficient in certain vitamins, your doctor can conduct a blood test and may recommend certain supplements, but the current generally accepted medical advice (and easiest thing to do) is to choose a healthy diet full of foods that contain folic acid, B12, and vitamin C – you can find a list of them here!

We hope this answers the questions you should be asking when buying supplements. Let us know what you think below!