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“The FDA does regulate supplements, but as foods—not drugs—which gives manufacturers more leeway,” says Tod Cooperman, MD, founder and president of ConsumerLab, an organization that coordinates independent testing of vitamins and supplements. “The FDA requires that drugs be proven safe and effective, and that’s not the case with supplements.” And while the FDA can inspect a supplement manufacturer at any time, its limited resources make it tough to keep up with the supplement industry’s steady growth, he says. As a result, manufacturing works more like an honor system, and unfortunately, infractions aren’t uncommon. “More than 20 percent of supplements have failed ConsumerLab reviews due to incorrect amounts of key ingredients, contamination—typically with lead, arsenic, or other heavy metals—or pills that don’t properly break apart,” says Cooperman. In fact, a 2016 ConsumerLab report found that more than half of audited supplement manufacturers were cited by the FDA for not implementing adequate quality controls such as testing ingredients and establishing specifications for the identity, purity, and strength of the finished products, says Cooperman.
All this means that navigating the maze of claims and disclaimers takes both skepticism and skill. Here, holistic pharmacist Sherry Torkos shares the five questions she asks herself before buying a supplement:
1. Is the product independently tested?
This can help ensure that a supplement contains what it claims on the label and is free of contaminants such as heavy metals and microbes.
2. Does the manufacturer have a good reputation for quality control, research, and customer service?
To answer this, read independent reviews, look for a seal of certification, or get specific recommendations from your health care practitioner. At the very least, check the company’s website for its quality-control practices.
3. Is the product backed by clinical research?
“This is especially important if you are taking a product for a specific health reason, rather than to support overall health,” says Torkos. “If a product has research backing its efficacy, you should be able to find it easily on the company’s website.” You can also look at the National Institutes of Health’s dietary supplement fact sheets, which are free and explain whether or not testing supports specific uses of herbal remedies.
4. Does the product contain a therapeutic dosage of the nutrient or key active ingredient?
A therapeutic dosage is the amount of a nutrient necessary to provide an actual health benefit, which you can confirm by doing a little research or consulting with a health care provider. For many supplements, medical research has established a standardized viable dose.
5. Are there any unnecessary additives in the list of ingredients, such as sugar, lactose, dyes, or flavors?
A few additives may be unavoidable, but in general, fewer is better.
Seals of Approval
Although there’s no single indication that a supplement company or product is a good one, many experts agree that the instance of independent testing and a seal of certification are good indicators that what’s in your package is safe. Two of the most widely respected certifiers are ConsumerLab—a private company that coordinates independent lab tests and reviews and rates vitamins, supplements, and herbs—and the United States Pharmacopeial Convention, a scientific, nonprofit organization that sets standards for drug manufacturers and also provides a rigorous, voluntary verification process for supplements. Keep in mind that testing can be expensive (starting at $3,000 per product), and several seals require a hefty audit fee as well, which may explain why only a handful of the more than 90,000 products on store shelves carry a seal.
See also 10 YJ-Approved Supplement Companies