Filling the gaps in our daily nutrition with tablets and powders isn’t a new concept. The large demand for nutritional supplementation has made the industry an attractive one, leading to a congested and difficult marketplace for consumers to navigate.
While federal regulations do exist that dictate the type of claims that can be made on a supplement label, supplement manufacturers are not required to submit their products to a pre-market approval process at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) like pharmaceutical manufacturers are required to do.
As the supplement industry has grown, supplement quality has been derailed and customer confusion has risen.
In 2007, the FDA issued the Current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP) regulatory program that dictate federal guidelines for the preparation, purity, and accuracy of labeling nutritional supplements. While these regulations are presented as minimum expectations, supplement companies are mostly left to police themselves.
Fortunately for consumers, there are companies that choose to hold themselves to high standards and fully comply with the regulations issued by the FDA.
Here’s how you can be absolutely certain that you are choosing a supplement company that is making high quality, safe, and efficacious products:
Look for third-party testing. Nutritional supplement brands can, and should, retain outside, independent companies to audit their manufacturing processes and test their products to ensure the FDA’s cGMP’s are being complied with, thus ensuring that the company’s products contain the ingredients listed on the label in the amounts listed and don’t contain any harmful ingredients.
NSF International has created an advanced certification program for supplements geared toward elite athletes. NSF International’s Certified for Sport® program tests products for more than 200 substances that are banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency and the United States Anti-Doping Agency (LINK). A supplement product that bears the Certified for Sport seal ensures that that the product contains exactly what the label claims it does, in the amounts listed, and nothing else.
Realize There is No Cure-All. It’s illegal for a supplement company to claim that any of its products prevent, cure, or treat any medical condition. Supplements are intended to complement the diet and to support overall health and well-being. Any express or implied claims that a product will prevent, cure, or treat a medical condition is a red flag that the manufacturer isn’t in compliance with the FDA’s labeling regulations for nutritional supplements. Furthermore, if a supplement’s product label has a lot of buzz words that don’t mean anything, such as “white hot heat” or “blazing intensity” the company is probably trying to distract you from a lack of evidence behind their product.
Companies often use phrases that imply there’s science behind their product – such as “clinically proven” – but many of these claims are not backed by actual research. Be cautious of products claiming ancient formulas, cutting-edge science, miracle cures, or guarantees. A reputable and honest company will have contact information you can use to request further information for the research behind their claims. Lastly, if a product sounds too good to be true – "Lose 10 pounds in one day" – that's probably because it is.
Take a Lead from Sports. Be aware of ingredients banned in sports by agencies like the World Anti-Doping Agency and the United States Anti-Doping Agency. While these ingredients aren’t always prohibited for general consumption, these organizations see a problem with the ingredients, which should be a red flag to you as a regular consumer. Do your research to see if you should ban these ingredients from your nutritional game plan.
Watch out for warnings. Be wary of supplements with a long list of warnings or contraindications listed on the product label. Any serious adverse effects reported to a supplement company must be reported to the FDA by the supplement company.
Be an Educated Consumer. Registered dietitians are trained to evaluate the need for, effectiveness of, and safety of nutritional supplements. Always consult your health-care practitioner before starting a supplement regimen. The National Institutes of Health and the United States Anti-Doping Agency offer resources to help educate you on supplement before you use them. Always be sure to do your homework on your supplement company before taking their products.