Sit up straight, brush your teeth, take your vitamins. For generations, parents have passed down these tried-and-true health tips to their children. But recent bad press has made a growing number of people question if, when it comes to vitamins and other dietary supplements, mom and dad really did know best.
In the last couple of years, we’ve heard about research showing that multivitamins are no better than a placebo at keeping us healthy, and that taking too many supplements could lead to cancer. And this past February, the New York Attorney General released tests showing that four out of five popular herbal supplements sold at GNC, Walgreens, Target, and Walmart contained little to none of the actual herbs listed on the labels.
Combine that with gossip about how no one really regulates supplements, and even the most devoted users are beginning to wonder: Can we really trust that supplements are safe and effective?
The simple answer is yes—most of the time.
Industry experts cite mounds of evidence proving that supplements are safe. But the same can’t always be said about effectiveness. The U.S. government has laws in place to ensure that supplement ingredients are tested for purity and potency, but not everyone respects the law.
“Every industry does have some companies that are outliers, that don’t always put consumers first,” says Steve Mister, president of the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), a supplements industry association.
That’s why holistic health professionals, researchers, and natural products retailers offer the following advice when it comes to choosing supplements: Trust—but verify.
In other words, be as savvy in the supplements aisle as you are in the rest of the store. Here’s what you need to know to make the best choices.
Yes, supplements are regulated
There are three major U.S. laws that help ensure the safety of supplements. The granddaddy is the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA). DSHEA gives the FDA the ability to regulate dietary supplements the same way it does food. That means the FDA can pull any supplement from the market that it considers unsafe.
So why do some people persist in saying that supplements are unregulated? Probably because they’re confusing them with drugs, says Mister. Drugs go through extensive human testing before the FDA approves them. But it’s not economically feasible to do the same thing for the millions of different food and supplement ingredients. So DSHEA requires that the manufacturer provide safety information to the FDA before a new ingredient is approved. And the feds aren’t afraid to say no if they don’t like that info—CRN notes that in the 21 years that DSHEA has been around, the FDA has turned down about half of all new dietary supplement ingredient applications.
In recent years, Congress has beefed up DSHEA even more. In 2006, legislators passed a law requiring that all supplement manufacturers notify the FDA if they receive any reports of serious health incidents associated with one of their products. And, as of 2010, all U.S. supplement makers must follow stringent FDA good manufacturing practices (GMPs). Mister says this includes everything from sourcing raw materials to making sure workers wear hairnets on the manufacturing floor. It also requires testing of raw materials to show that they have the same ingredients and potency the manufacturer claims they do and aren’t adulterated with toxins, such as pesticides and heavy metals.
Some supplement manufacturers do their own testing, but most use private companies, such as Alkemist Labs in California. “We’re testing more raw materials now than we ever have,” says Alkemist CEO Élan Sudberg. “And we’re finding that close to all of the materials we test are actually what the manufacturer says they are. It’s better than it’s ever been, and it’s getting better every day.”
So why the big problem with all the herbal supplements in New York? Sudberg and other experts say the New York labs simply used the wrong test. Many herbal supplements are made from botanical extracts—a process that destroys most of the herb’s DNA, but none of its potency or medicinal value. So it’s no surprise that when the New Yorkers tested the supplements using DNA bar coding, they found little to no herbal DNA and concluded that the products didn’t include the ingredients they said they did. But GNC reported that when independent testing companies retested its supplements using protocols other than DNA bar coding, the products exceeded federal ingredient standards.
“No knowledgeable medicinal plant expert or laboratory analysis expert that I’ve talked to takes the New York DNA bar-coding results as credible,” says Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council (ABC), a nonprofit research and educational association for medicinal plants.
But all of the laws and testing still can’t ensure that every supplement on the market is potent and pure. Sudberg says a few labs will fudge tests if their customers pay them enough. And some companies simply don’t test their ingredients at all, banking on the fact that the FDA is understaffed and won’t conduct an audit on them.
So how do you know if your favorite supplement is made by a company that plays by the rules?
How to make safe supplement choices
Use this handy checklist to help ensure the supplements you take home can be trusted, and are beneficial to your health.
Ask your retailer or health care provider. They work with supplements every day and know the most reputable brands.
Don’t believe claims that sound too good to be true. Mister points out that, unlike drugs, supplements are meant to act slowly and gradually. If a product promises quick results, that’s a red flag that it could include drugs or synthetic stimulants.
Watch out for the tainted trio. There are three categories of supplements that tend to be adulterated more than any other type: weight loss, bodybuilding, and sexual enhancement. Be extra vigilant when buying these products.
Don’t believe everything you read. If a new study gets a lot of negative media attention, check the CRN (crnusa.org) or ABC (herbalgram.org) websites for expert analyses of the research. Often, researchers use the wrong plant components (leaves rather than the medicinal root, for instance) or questionable methods to arrive at their conclusions.
Spend a little, get a little. Price does not always determine quality, but as Sudberg points out, “quality costs money.” If a supplement is more expensive, that may mean the company spent extra on testing and quality control. And generic, store-label brands rely on contract manufacturers, meaning they have little control over sourcing, processing, and testing, says Neil Levin, education manager for the supplements company Now Foods.
Look for third-party certifications. There are four main independent agencies that check GMPs (good manufacturing practices) and certify that supps are safe and effective: USP, NSF, NPA, and UL. But if a product doesn’t have one of these seals, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not high quality. The manufacturer may simply be confident enough in its testing processes that it doesn’t feel the need to spend a lot of money for a second opinion. Still, experts agree that if you want ultimate assurance, look for one of these seals.
Check out the FDA warnings. You can find which companies and products have caught the FDA’s eye by entering “Dietary Supplements Guidance Documents & Regulatory Information” into the search bar at the FDA’s website (fda.gov).
Take a look at the manufacturers’ websites. Some post their testing and quality control data. You can also read about the company’s history and get a feel for its reputability.
Look for branded ingredients. If a label contains an ingredient with a ™ (trademark) or a ® (registered trademark symbol) after its name, that means it is branded and probably has research behind it. “A good rule of thumb is if a company is willing to invest in clinical research, it probably also invests in good raw materials,” Blumenthal says.
Break out the medical dictionary. Supplement labels can be full of big, unpronounceable words. Some are simply forms of vitamins, such as tocopherol for vitamin E. But others can be synthetic stimulants or unnecessary fillers. A quick Internet search can tell you the difference—or you can save yourself the hassle and just ask your retailer.