With all the media hype around spiked, adulterated or contaminated dietary supplements, many of you may be wondering, “How do I know my supplements are safe?” That’s a very good question and one we are happy to answer.
In order to choose a high quality supplement, it helps to know a little about the FDA and FTC regulations that govern supplement manufacturing and marketing. With this knowledge, you’ll be better able to:
- Understand how supplement quality varies, even among reputable manufacturers following FDA and FTC regulations, and
- Spot the “red flags ” that are the hallmarks of unscrupulous manufacturers and distributors
The FDA has set minimum quality standards called Good Manufacturing Practices for supplements (GMPs) that focus on three facets of quality: authenticity, purity and potency. Lab tests are used to ensure that products meet these criteria; however some brands test more thoroughly than others.
Therein lies the chief determiner of supplement quality and why some supplements cost more than others. Manufacturers with the highest quality standards for authenticity, purity and potency conduct far more tests to detect counterfeit materials or contaminates. While comprehensive testing adds to the product cost, it increases the purity and safety profile of the product.
Another factor that can affect supplement quality and cost is the formula itself. This includes the medical expertise involved, research and development costs, or use of a proprietary ingredient.
Therefore, as in many other industries, there can be wide variances in quality from budget brands to premium or luxury brands—all while meeting minimum regulatory standards. So how do you know where any given brand falls on the quality continuum? Price is one indicator, but it also helps to dig a little deeper.
Ask the Right Questions
1. Does the product manufacturer disclose the level of quality testing they perform on each product that guarantees its authenticity, purity and potency? This should appear on the product label or in the manufacturer’s product catalog or website.
2. Has the supplement you're considering ever failed a quality test by an independent source, like ConsumerLab.com?
3. Has the company producing the supplement ever been the target of a regulatory agency like the FDA or FTC? This includes product recalls, warnings or safety alerts.
4. Can you find a readable lot number and expiration date on the product label?
5. Does the manufacturer employ medical experts to develop or review formulas based on the latest scientific research in order to determine: optimal dosage, best form for bioavailability and overall efficacy.
If in doubt, call the manufacturer with your questions.
Watch Out for Red Flags
The FDA requires that certain information be disclosed on product labeling while forbidding other information. Therefore the presence or absence of certain information is often a red flag that the supplement’s safety or efficacy is highly questionable.
- The label or packaging must provide the name and address (or phone number) of the manufacturer or distributor.
- All dietary ingredients must be listed in the “Supplement Facts” box on the product label. This includes the strength/amount per serving of each ingredient. Herbals must also indicate the part of the plant used, (i.e. root or leaves).
- Supplement manufacturers are forbidden from making any claim that a supplement can prevent, treat or cure any disease or illness. Virtually any mention of a chronic disease or disorder cannot be used in connection with a supplement’s use. This includes using patient testimonials that say that the product prevented, treated or cured a disease.
- Supplements cannot claim to be a “natural alternative” to a drug or make any comparison to working like a drug (i.e. prescription strength).
Other red flags include:
- Foreign Language Packaging – Avoid products marked primarily in a foreign language. Toxic ingredients and prescription drugs have been found in supplements made in foreign countries, particularly China, India and Mexico.
- Miracle Claims – Avoid supplements that seem too good to be true. If it says you can lose weight without changing your diet or exercising, that’s a red flag. Don’t purchase any supplement that promises instantaneous or unrealistic results.
Even with premium quality supplements, it is still important to follow these general safety tips:
- Before taking any supplement, discuss it with your doctor first to prevent any unforeseen drug or food interactions.
- Follow the dosing instructions on the label.
- Store supplements as directed on the label. If not listed, store in a cool dry location away from heat, humidity and direct sunlight. Most oils can be stored in the refrigerator for optimal freshness.
- Always inform any new doctor of any supplements you are taking, especially if you are having surgery. You may be asked to discontinue their use 2 to 4 weeks before surgery to avoid interactions or complications.
Because the heart of our business is providing nutritional supplements to patients in hospitals or under a doctor’s treatment, “good enough for most” is not acceptable. Only the highest standards in authenticity, potency and purity will do -- which is why we perform reference testing for up to 51 solvents, 159 herbicides, pesticides and fungicides, 17 dioxins, four aflatoxins, and four heavy metals.
We encorage you to watch this five-minute video interview with Dr. Timothy Birdsall, vice chairman of CNCA's Quality Control Unit, who explains just how easy it is to find a contaminated supplement and recommends which supplements everyone should consider taking.
Office of Dietary Supplements – National Institutes of Health