Please Note: This post is intended as a Part 3 follow-up to:

1. Taking Supplements in the New Year? Beware of Economic Adulteration
2. Weight-loss Supplements and FDA Regulation: What You Should Know

When you look at the shelf in a pharmacy or health food store, or browse the internet for dietary supplements, it’s very hard to tell what you are actually buying. Whether you are shopping for a multivitamin, joint support supplement or something to help your hair grow, how can you tell if a product is safe?

Buying Safe Supplements:

Be a smart consumer when purchasing dietary supplements!While there’s no perfect method for buying safe supplements, these tips might be able to provide you with some extra assurance.

1) Check for Unrealistic Claims.

If the product (or seller) is making claims that sound too good to be true, that’s a red flag! Regulations regarding what you can say around dietary supplements are pretty clear and strict. While even the best companies may push the rules sometimes, quality supplement companies typically play by the rules.

If a product promises you will lose a pound a day, or be able to stop taking medication for your arthritis, or re-grow a head of thick dark hair when yours is grey and thinning, it’s best to look elsewhere. Companies engaging in that kind of marketing care more about what they sell to you than your safety and well-being. They are also violating the law.

To read more about the regulation that governs claims, called “DSHEA” – Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act – please CLICK HERE.

2) Look for Products with Third Party Certifications.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees the majority of activities related to supplement manufacturing, holding and distribution. They inspect companies to make sure they comply with Current Good Manufacturing Practice regulations (GMPs or cGMPs), but they don’t certify anything. In fact, the best possible outcome of an FDA inspection is that they leave nothing behind. If they’ve left a notice, it’s for a violation.

Unfortunately, this means there is no gold star or seal of approval from the FDA that consumers can look for when buying a product. Because of this, many companies have invested in third party certifications from outside quality organizations that regularly audit, inspect and test their processes and products.

Some of the better known organizations are NSF International Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and United States Pharmacopeia (USP).

3) Do Your Homework in Advance. 

Stay safe by knowing what you are looking for. Doing your homework about ingredients that are safe for your health is one way to make sure you’re buying what you actually want. If possible, try to research using non-commercial sources. The Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is a great place to start.

NIH also houses the National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health (NCCIH – formerly NCCAM). NCCIH has a wealth of information on vitamins, minerals, and herbs, as well as topics organized by health concern. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has their own resources, plus excellent links to validate third-party sources of information. Finally, many medical and academic institutions are valuable resources including Mayo Clinics, The Cleveland Clinic and Memorial Sloan Kettering.

Do you have a product or company you want to know more about? The NIH has a database that lets you search by product, ingredient or manufacturer.

4) Good Reputations are Earned.

While not perfect, companies that have been in business for a long time have probably taken the time to know how to make safe, quality products. Look for reputable brands that are carried by known retailers (brick and mortar or online) as a safety measure.

5) Read the Label.

Know what’s in the product, but look for other things too! Labels should tell you both what is in the product (statement of identity), as well as how much. There should be a serving size as well as directions for use. Look to see if there are any precautions or warnings.

Finally – and perhaps most importantly – look for contact information. At a minimum, name and place of business of the manufacturer and/or distributor should be on the label. Ideally, there will also be a phone number or website listed if you have an issue or concern.

Final Thoughts:

Hopefully you will never have a complication or adverse event from taking a dietary supplement, but if you do, it’s also important to report it. Taking the time for this improves safety for everyone. You can report a problem to your health professional, to the company manufacturing or marketing the product, or directly to FDA.

About the Author:
Jacqueline Jacques, ND, FTOS, is the Senior Vice President of Medical Affairs for Thorne Research, the Past Chief Science Officer of Bariatric Advantage, and a former National OAC Board Member. She is a Naturopathic Physician and Fellow of The Obesity Society with more than two decades of experience in medical nutrition and the dietary supplement industry.