Hype around nutritional supplements abounds. How do you find those “hidden gems” amongst all the poor-quality supplements? Know for sure that any supplements you take will deliver on their promiose with this 9 point checklist.
Unless you have the knowledge of a biologist, chemist, nutritionist, and clinical researcher rolled into one, it’s not so easy to know if a supplement will address deficiencies, improve your health, or even contain what it says on the label!
While I can’t claim all of these credentials, I do have decades of experience researching nutrition and supplements.
If you follow this process, you’ll substantially improve your odds of finding a company you can trust and a product that will give you the benefits you need. When your health is at stake only the best supplements will do!
1) Look for Quality Assurance
The best way to know if a supplement contains what the label says is to choose a product that has been manufactured at a Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) facility. A GMP facility must comply with rigid standards and assures that what is in the bottle is the same as what is on the label.
Discrepancies happen more often than you might realize! Recently a study on 55 brands of vitamin D supplements found they contained between 9% – 146% of what was listed on the label!
Next, you want to know that the raw materials are of high quality. See if the manufacturer has a Certificate of Analysis (COA) for each ingredient.
Having a COA means that the raw material is tested by an independent lab and deemed to be contaminant-free.
Contaminants found in supplements include mold, fungus, pesticides, lead, arsenic, mercury, and even traces of prescription drugs like Viagra!
Another good sign is for a product to be NSF certified. NSF.org is a respected third-party quality assurance organization. It verifies that a facility complies with good manufacturing practices, and takes proper steps to ensure product safety and accurate labeling.
2) Look for Transparent Labeling
Supplements are required to have ingredient labels, but there are ways that companies can still avoid total transparency about their products. Here are some of the things to watch out for.
Some products contain “proprietary formulas” that do not reveal ingredients’ amounts and concentrations. Companies will say they do this to protect their formulations from their competitors, and I understand this.
But less-than-reputable companies hide behind these words to conceal the fact that there isn’t enough of specific ingredients to do you any good. This is a judgment call you will have to make.
Any supplements that are in pill form need binders or coatings. These hold a product together and allow it to be easily swallowed. But try to avoid products that contain unnecessary sucrose (sugar), artificial colors or flavors, or hydrogenated oils. You want even the inactive ingredients to be as healthy as possible. Some manufacturers use such small print you almost have to use a magnifying glass to read the “other ingredients”. This makes me wonder what they are trying to hide.
If you are ordering supplements online, be wary of any product that doesn’t publish a copy of the ingredient label on the website, listing all active and inactive ingredients. Hard to believe, but some companies just talk about their ingredients and expect you to buy their products without knowing exactly what is in them! This information can be a matter of life and death for people with allergies.
Any contraindications should be clearly listed. Some supplement ingredients should not be used by people taking certain medications or with some existing health concerns.
NOTE: Don’t get conned by the term “nutraceutical”. It is often used to suggest that a supplement has medical benefits. But there is no regulation of the use of this term and is basically meaningless.
3) Look for Therapeutic Doses
There is a minimum amount of any nutrient that has been determined to provide any real benefit — this is called its therapeutic dosage. So knowing your dosage is critical.
Sometimes a single ingredient supplement is what you need. If you are a vegetarian, for example, you may want to take a vitamin B12 supplement. In this case it’s pretty straightforward to know what dosage you are getting.
But often a blended formula will make more sense for you to take. Some companies intentionally add just a miniscule amount of an expensive ingredient so they can add it to the label. This is a common practice in both the supplement and cosmetic industries and is referred to as adding “fairy dust”.
Supplements that contain several ingredients can work synergistically — where each ingredient enhances the benefit of the others — provided they are developed by knowledgeable researchers or herbalists that understand required dosages and possible interactions.
But you want to avoid what I call “kitchen sink” supplements. These products contain a lot of ingredients that sound good, but are not present in therapeutic amounts. This does you no good!
4) Look for Research Studies
You want to know why each particular ingredient is in a supplement. You want to know whether it has been clinically proven to support health. I like to see a company reference outside studies done on its product’s ingredients.
You can always go to a reputable third-party source to see what proven benefits can be expected from a particular ingredient. It’s fair to question anything you learn about a product that is unsubstantiated, especially if you have reason to doubt the company’s integrity.
Some companies makes claims based on clinical studies conducted using their own unique product formulation.
Clinical studies are done on people, not in a test tube or on another species. They involve giving one group a placebo and the other group the product being tested. The results from the two groups are then compared. This is the best way to have confidence that a product will work for real people as the manufacturer claims it will.
Clinical studies take a lot of time and money, so few manufacturers do this. These clinical trials should be contracted out to third-party research facilities.
5) Beware of Private Label Supplements
Many supplements are what is known in the industry as private label brands. Private label manufacturers create generic supplements for others to sell. Anyone can buy the right to market and sell these formulas as they see fit. These businesses slap on an attractive label, set up a website, and start a marketing campaign. These companies may have no expertise or interest in health and exist purely to make money.
How can you tell if a supplement is a disreputable private label? There is no way to know for sure, but I think you know hype when you see it. Signs to watch out for include a website that has no phone number, no physical address, no guarantee or returns allowed, no obvious company behind it, or a hypey-looking website making trumped up claims. Look for misspellings — if you see a supplement that misspells its own name (yes, I’ve seen this on Amazon!) you can be pretty sure its a scam.
6) Cost vs Value
With many things in life, you get what you pay for. But that is not always the case with supplements.
If a product has a huge marketing budget or uses multilevel marketing distribution, that will drive up its cost with no additional benefit to you. Look for a company that puts its money into the research and development of safe and effective products instead of marketing. Some companies will discuss their R&D on their website — this is a good sign.
Just as with buying anything, most products will be mediocre, some will be worthless (or even dangerous) and only a few will stand out as excellent.
You can pay as much or as little for supplements you you want. A quick look at Amazon reveals you could spend as little as $3 or as much as $100+ for a bottle of multivitamins! Start by looking at products in the middle range.
Skip the bottom-of-the-barrel products. I’m all for getting value for my dollar and I’m sure you are too. But with your health at stake, this is not the place to go for the bargain brands. These are not offered by reputable companies and you have no idea what you are really getting.
Skip those in the $100 range too. There is no need to spend that much money!
Some companies have creative ways to make their products more affordable — make sure you take advantage of money saving offers. They can be in the form of promotional codes (do an online search for these), combo packs, free trials, or auto shipments.
Some products might look like a bargain until you realize that one bottle, taken as directed, will last only a week or two. Pay attention to cost per day rather than cost per bottle.
Read all the small print so you won’t have any surprises. A reputable company won’t have to trick you into buying its products and will value your long-term relationship more than trying to squeeze a little extra money out of you.
7) Standardized Herbal Extracts vs Whole Herbs
There is another level of complexity when you are buying herbal (vs nutritional) supplements. Should you look for standardized extracts or whole herbs?
Those in favor of standardized extracts have a good point — you don’t know what you are getting in an herbal remedy unless you standardize its active components. Instead of listing only millligrams per serving, standardized extracts also list percentages of active ingredients that are present.
Traditional herbalists prefer the use of whole herbs, also called full spectrum extracts. This means the manufacturer has made an overall extract from that plant (or plant part) so it will include the whole spectrum of naturally occurring compounds.
The thinking is that by using a full spectrum extract, you benefit from the synergistic effects of these compounds. The user also avoids the tendency to an increase in side effects that comes with standardized extracts and the use of harsh chemical solvents that are often used to isolate just the main active ingredients.
Whichever kind of herbs you decide on, it is particularly important when herbal supplements from buy from a reputable company that takes quality control seriously.
8) Company Reputation Is Key
This is the most important consideration of all.
I can’t emphasize strongly enough the importance of a company’s reputation and integrity. Buying decisions ultimately come down to trust. We all place a huge amount of trust in every purchase we make.
We trust that our food is safe, our cars won’t explode, and our kids’ toys are lead-free. But how do you know for sure? This is something we’ve learned the hard way in recent years by importing unregulated products from other countries.
If a company has a loyal customer base and raving fans, you’re on the right track. If it has also earned the respect of other health professionals and received kudos from its peers, you know you’ve found a winner!
A good way to know what customers think of a product is to check out social media sites like Facebook, retail outlets like Amazon, or health forums. As always though, be on guard, be critical of what you read, and read between the lines. Unfortunately, positive user comments and even Facebook “likes” can be bought!
Put more stock in comments that come from those that state “Amazon Verified Purchase”. Unfortunately, some Amazon sellers have learned how to game the system. You’ll see some supplements that have tons of raving comments, all posted within a short time span, with very few by verified customers. These are fake user comments known as “comment spam”.
Another way to check on a company’s reputation is to check its Better Business Bureau rating or do a Google search and see what comes up. Some supplement companies have complaints or class action suits registered against them due to questionable billing practices or overreaching product claims.
Unfortunately, some companies have what seem to be decent products, but have horrible customer service or weird billing practices. If they don’t care about you after you’ve purchased their products, are they all that concerned about the effectiveness of their products?
9) Look at the Company’s Website
You can learn a lot about a company by visiting its website. Here are some things to look for:
- Notice your first impression of the website. It should look professional but not hyped, and should leave you with a good feeling.
- Read the “about us” page. Who is behind the company name? What are their credentials? Are there any scientists, herbalists, doctors, or researchers on board? Is there a physical location listed? There should be.
- Look for a mission statement or a written commitment to customers. This at least gives the appearance of caring, which is a good start.
- Check out the customer service options. Some companies hide behind email. A reputable company will offer other contact options and list its physical address. You deserve to be able to talk with a knowledgeable customer service representative that is respectful and handles any problems efficiently.
- What is the guarantee? The longer the guarantee period, the better — it benefits you and shows that the company has faith in its products. Check the guarantee carefully for weasel clauses. These can be found in the small print and can make it almost impossible to get your money back. These might include needing original packaging, not accepting opened bottles, or not accepting returns before 30 days … or after 30 days. Grrr. But some companies take back opened items and have a 60 day or even up to a full year guarantee. Now we’re talking!
- Is there mention of having a GMP facility, an R&D department, COAs on the raw materials used in its products, or clinical studies or scientific references to support product claims? These are all signs of a high quality manufacturer that puts this company ahead of most.
- Watch out for unscrupulous billing practices. Some products have free trials that are anything but free. Others sign you up for an auto shipment program without your permission. If you find any program confusing, it’s best to stay clear of it.
I have given you a process that works well for me and I encourage you to do at least some research of your own. I know this sounds like a lot of work but, you’ll definitely increase your chances of spending your money wisely to get the health benefits you’re looking for.
Contaminants Lurk In Many Natural Products at MSNBC.com
Choosing High Quality Dietary Supplements at Nutrition.About.com
Dietary Supplements at NSF.org
Good Manufacturing Practices at NSF.org
NSF GMP at WomentoWomen.com
That Vitamin D You’re Taking? It Might Not be What It Appears at Forbes.com
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Deane Alban is co-founder of BeBrainFit.com and author of Brain Gold: The Anti-Aging Guide for Your Brain. Deane holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from University of South Florida, where she also studied journalism. She has taught and written on a wide variety of natural health topics for over 20 years, including teaching healthy cooking classes. Sign up for her free newsletter for insider information on how to keep your brain fit and your mind sharp for life.
Deane believes that taking supplements shouldn’t be complicated. Too many people have a cabinet full and still don’t feel as good as they’d like! Learn which company meets her stringent criteria and the only 3 supplements most people need to take here.