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Megan Best
Megan Best

RDN, CPT

How to know if your supplements are safe

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One of the most common questions I get from clients is what supplements they should be taking.  My answer, as with most other nutrition questions is: it depends.  

First, I think it’s important to point out that supplements are not a magic pill that will make all the difference. They will not be the missing link that gets you those six pack abs, that first pull-up, or that 6 minute mile.  They are probably the thing that matters the least when it comes to those goals.  They are also not a replacement for food, which is the thing that provides you actual nourishment, micro- and macronutrients, as well as joy, pleasure, and community.  Supplements exist simply to compliment a healthy diet.

If you aren’t already rocking adequate protein, copious amounts of vegetables throughout the day and 7-9 hours of nightly sleep, they will likely not do much for you. 

That being said, I am here today to arm you with the tools to be a savvy supplement shopper, because it is important to be educated on what’s out there!

What to look for

First we must acknowledge that the supplement industry is not regulated by the FDA (or anyone else), so many companies end up putting whatever they want (read: whatever is cheapest) into their product. Sometimes it can even be items that aren’t listen on the label, or different amounts than what they have listed. For this reason, we want to look for supplements that have a “stamp of approval” seal, indicating that the company has added an extra step to verify:

  • Accuracy: the supplement contains the product it’s advertising on its label.
  • Potency: the supplement contains the amount the company is claiming on the label.
  • Contaminants: the supplement is void of any substances that are not on the label- for example heavy metals or common allergens.

Labels you can trust

Companies are starting to become hip to the fact that the average shopper is looking for some sort of stamp of approval on their supplements. So many are now adding their own made up seals that don’t really mean anything, or simply stamping the words “organic” or “natural” on the bottle. Here are some seals you can trust:

  • NSF: reviews label claims to certify what’s on the label is in the bottle, completes toxicology reviews to certify formulations and contaminant reviews to certify there are no undeclared ingredients or unacceptable levels of contaminants.  Worth noting there is also NSF for sport, which screens products for more than 270 banned substances as well as undeclared ingredients including stimulants, narcotics, steroids, diuretics, and other substances.
  • GMP: follows guidelines and documentation to assure the product has the identity, strength, composition, purity and quality it claims on the label. Part of NSF, this program is also open to manufacturers of raw materials and ingredients who want to demonstrate their commitment to public safety.
  • USP: sets standards for pharmaceuticals as well as supplements.  Verification is provided by (read: paid for) by the manufacturer and USP tests one to six times per year using samples purchased in stores.  However keep in mind some companies will print the letters “USP” without the official “USP Verified” seal.  Typically this means that the company is claiming its products are in accordance with the USP standards but it has not actually been vetted by the United States Pharmacopeia. 
  • UL: Underwriter’s Laboratory performs reviews of their clients’ GMP compliance, does label reviews and tests products one to two times per year using samples purchased in stores. 

Why do we worry about this?

Some of you may remember a few years back when some popular supplements sold under store brand names were caught in a precarious position.  These herbals (things like ginseng, valerian root, and St. John’s wort) were found to be completely void of any ingredients on the label and actually contained powdered rice, asparagus, and even houseplants.  NO THANK YOU.

Other ways to check your products?  Websites like Labdoor and Clean Label Project allow you to search databases and find what these companies have “graded” the supplements based on criteria like label accuracy, product purity, nutritional value, ingredient safety and projected efficacy.  

Got any other supplement questions? Drop them in the comments!

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