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(How) Do you know what’s REALLY in your supplement?


(How) Do you know what’s REALLY in your supplement?

December 17, 2020

Unfortunately, many studies have shown that some dietary supplements do not actually contain what is on the label. In the U.S., supplements are not regulated by the FDA. While the manufacturer is responsible for ensuring safety, new supplements do not need to be approved by the FDA unless they contain a new ingredient that has not been sold before. Many don’t have the amount of ingredients that they claim, and a number contain non-listed ingredients, including pharmaceuticals. Others are tainted with heavy metals and pesticides.

For example, a study in 2016 of 16 probiotic supplements on the market showed that only ONE of the supplement’s ingredients perfectly matched its label. The others had additional bacterial strains not listed, and/or lower amounts of the listed strains than claimed. Different lots of the same probiotic often contained varying quantities of bacterial strains. And sometimes, even in the same bottle, the number of strains changed from one pill to the next.

Another good example is CBD supplements. Legal CBD is made from the hemp form of cannabis, which naturally has less THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana that causes a high. Companies are allowed to sell CBD supplements as long as they only have a tiny amount (0.3 percent) of THC. Several recent studies of these CBD products showed that over 70 percent of them did not have the amount of CBD and THC that they claimed. Some had no CBD at all, and many had additional unwanted contaminants. Hemp readily absorbs toxins from the soil, so many of the supplements included heavy metals, pesticides, and dangerous levels of bacteria. And, more concerning, many had more THC than legally allowed. It is possible to fail a drug test when you use legal CBD supplements. And it is especially likely to happen when the supplement has more THC than the FDA allows.


There are additional concerns to think about when it comes to vitamin and herbal supplements. Many one-a-day vitamin manufacturers use cheaper forms of vitamins, which may not be good for you. They also bind the vitamins together using magnesium stearate, a soap — making it difficult for the pill to dissolve. (While naysayers have always talked about vitamins making expensive urine, undissolved tablets are probably making expensive stool!) And thinking longterm, herbal products may be grown using unsustainable farming practices, something we all need to be concerned about.

So how do you pick a quality product?

Many companies claim to conform to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) — guidelines that provide minimum requirements that products must meet to ensure that they are consistently high in quality. But do they really meet these standards? Several third-party governing bodies that independently assess and certify companies that do indeed employ these practices. One of these agencies is the United States Pharmacopoeia (USP). If a supplement label has the USP seal, it has been audited for safety and GMP. And it should contain the amount of herb or vitamin listed on the label and be free of toxic contaminants. NSF International is another third-party agency that reviews supplements for quality. Some companies fraudulently display these USP and NSF labels, however you can check the websites to confirm that these agencies indeed certify the products.

supplements in bottle

The brands we carry in our store have a reputation for quality and safety. Companies such as Pure Encapsulations, Orthomolecular, Metagenics, Thorne, Standard Process, and Designs for Health research their products to prove safety and efficacy.

Metagenics, for example, is certified by both USP and NSF, as well as several other third-party agencies including the Natural Products Association (NPA). Metagenics’ new program, the True Quality Initiative, goes a step further to assure consumers that they are getting only what the label indicates. Go to their website and enter the lot number for each bottle, then download a detailed report that shows you exactly what is in each bottle!

More tips to help you pick quality supplements:

  • Pay close attention to any details on the label, which may include disclaimers. One good example is probiotics. Many claim to have a certain number of colony-forming units (CFU) with the disclaimer that the amount listed is the amount “at time of manufacture.” The bottle often makes it to the shelf with significantly fewer colonies left. It’s better to pick one that guarantees a certain number of CFU at the time of expiration.
  • Beware of supplements that are made outside the United States. Many of these products are herbs and can be contaminated if the soil where they are grown is full of pesticides and heavy metals. Many Chinese and Indian herbs are contaminated with metals including lead, arsenic, and mercury. Choosing organic products made in the United States is usually safer.
  • Look for supplements that are free of preservatives, artificial colorings, and sugars. If you have diet restrictions, you should also make sure that your supplements conform to these constraints (e.g., gluten and dairy) as well.
  • Always discuss your supplements with your doctor to make sure that the doses and ingredients are right for you.

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