How To Choose High-Quality Supplements

What's really in your supplements? What does science say about an herb's effectiveness? And what should you look for in a multivitamin?

March 2, 2016
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We take supplements to stay healthy—either to fill in gaps in our diet or to find a natural means of treating a variety of ailments. But increasing scrutiny on the supplement industry has shown that some supplements aren’t at all what the label leads you to believe, and in fact, they may even do more harm than good. Here’s what you need to know.

Does Science Back up a Supplement’s Claims?

Before you buy a supplement, it’s helpful to know whether it’s worth taking in the first place. Does research back up the claims? For example, if you’re thinking of taking açaí supplements for weight loss, you’ll find that according to National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has temporarily halted the operation of a number of websites for making false weight loss claims about açaí. However, if you’re considering taking chamomile capsules for anxiety, you’ll be pleased to know that research has demonstrated this plant’s effectiveness.

Both the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the U.S. National Library of Medicine provide consumers with a library of resources on each individual herb. Just by doing a little research, you can find out about scientific studies as well as side effects and precautions you should know about before taking a supplement.

The Problem with Some Supplements

Sometimes even if the herbal supplement has been scientifically proven to be effective, it may not contain what the label says. In order to cut costs, some companies may add fillers or even contaminants, which often aren’t included in the ingredient list. This practice results in an inferior product that contains far less of the (often more expensive) active ingredient advertised on the label. This deceptive practice is not only misleading, it poses serious health risks for those who are allergic to common fillers like wheat or soy.

Last year, major supplement retailers like Target, GNC, and Walmart were accused of selling supplements that didn’t contain the ingredients listed on the label. A 2012 report of the Journal of the American Medical Association found that improperly labeled supplements could also contain contaminants that were in effect poisonous. This research, along with a number of other studies, shows that supplements can be dangerous if you choose the wrong bottle.

Be Wary of Exaggerated Claims

For consumers, it’s worth being skeptical of seemingly exaggerated claims. If a supplement purports to prevent or cure a disease, the company may not be trustworthy. The FTC has filed more than 30 cases against supplement companies that have made false or misleading claims about their products. Some weight loss supplements, in particular, have been shown to make people really sick, causing scary illnesses like acute hepatitis and jaundice.

Buy Certified Supplements

You can’t know for sure what’s in a supplement unless it’s tested. The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) is a nonprofit organization that tests supplements to see if they contain the ingredients that the labels claim they do. You know the supplement has been tested if the label reads USP certified. NSF is another certifying body that independently tests products to ensure that labels are accurate.

What to Look for in a Multivitamin

Multivitamins are among the most popular supplements, so it’s important to know what to look for in a product. For starters, look for essential vitamins and minerals like vitamin C, the B vitamins, vitamins A, D, E, and K, as well as potassium, iodine, selenium, borate, zinc, calcium, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, beta-carotene, and iron. The supplement should contain 100 percent of these vitamins except for calcium and magnesium, which would make the pill too large to swallow.

What’s more, make sure you choose a supplement geared toward your sex and age group so it includes the nutrients you need the most. Finally, don’t take supplements that go far beyond 100 percent of your daily allowance; some studies have shown them to be ineffective and, in some cases, even dangerous. Mega doses of fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K can build up in your system and cause problems.

Supplements are part of a healthy lifestyle for many of us. That’s why it’s important to ensure that you get what you’re paying for as a consumer.

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