Practicing Safe Supplementation
Dietary supplements are a hotly-debated issue among nutritionists, with some hard-liners advocating a whole-foods-only approach and others recommending daily multivitamins as an “insurance policy” for everyone.
I suppose that philosophically, I come in closer to the whole-foods-are-best camp, but in reality have come to believe that supplements in some form or another are a necessary evil for most of us at some point in our lives given imperfect diets, imperfect food supplies and imperfect bodies that don’t always process nutrients the way they’re supposed to. And while I’ll be the first to admit that certain supplements are undeniably beneficial to me and many others, I use the term ‘necessary evil’ because the whole business of choosing supplements that are safe, efficacious and uncontaminated is an incredibly complicated affair. This is due in large part to the fact that the FDA does not regulate dietary supplements (vitamins, minerals and herbs) in the same way that it does for medications, which leaves ensuring the safety and purity of a product entirely in the hands of the supplement manufacturers themselves. Furthermore, FDA approval is not required for a supplement manufacturer to sell their products, so just about anyone can jump into the ring to hawk their wares. Considering the lack of regulation, the number of ingredients present in any given supplement, and the fact that so many of these ingredients are sourced from countries like China where quality standards are dubious, you can see why I don’t take supplementation lightly. (Just because a product claims ‘Made in the USA,’ doesn’t mean all of its ingredients come from the USA…)
Indeed, one need not look far to find examples of products being marketed as healthy supplements that turn out to be downright toxic, contaminated with heavy metals, formulated with undeclared pharmaceutical ingredients (including steroids), or accidentally manufactured with dangerous levels of certain nutrients.
Prescription supplements, however, are a different story. These are regulated by the FDA in the same way that drugs are, and are therefore less likely (but still not guaranteed not to) to pose a problem.
What’s an Imperfect Eater to Do?
- If you choose to use supplements, one good habit to get into is to look for the USP Verification symbol on a product’s label. A USP Verified supplement is much more likely to be
free of contaminants, contain what it says it does, and come from a reputable manufacturer who was willing to submit its facilities and products to outside scrutiny. For a list of USP-verified products by brand, click here. Of course, there are plenty of great products on the market without USP verification (a few of which I use myself), but this is one generally reliable way to help navigate the supplement landscape if you find your choices overwhelming, particularly for commodity products like multivitamins.
- Another good option for people who take supplements regularly is to go in with your friends or family members on a subscription to Consumerlab.com. The company is an independent lab that randomly tests supplements and publishes reports on which products are approved based on containing the appropriate levels of what they claim to contain, without being contaminated. It costs $30 for the year to have access to the site’s full library of reports on supplements across numerous vitamin, mineral, herbal, sports, weight loss and other categories, and you can also search products by brand name.
- Err on the side of bigger, more well-known brands. Larger supplement marketers, like Centrum or GNC for example, are much more likely to have rigorous, internal quality-control standards than some smaller, fly-by-night labels who most likely outsource their production to third-party contract manufacturers and therefore do not supervise the formulation, sourcing and production of their own products. Large chain retailers’ store brands are generally a pretty safe bet as well; most of these products are manufactured by one of a small handful of large-scale, reputable contract manufacturers (e.g., Perrigo) who have similarly rigorous in-house quality controls as well. Having said that, there are some niche brands whose products I use and trust (e.g., Nordic Naturals), but if you don’t have the recommendation of someone reputable for a particular product or brand, I think a well-known company tends to be a more reliable default.
- Watch out for allergens! If you have a food allergy or intolerance, make sure to check your supplement label for possible fillers that contain allergens, like wheat, soy, dairy or egg-derived ingredients. Companies are not currently required to list allergen information on dietary supplements, but I’ve noticed more and more of them have started to do so voluntarily. For a list of gluten-free supplements in particular, check out the list at glutenfreedrugs.com and scroll down until you reach the vitamins section. It may not be exhaustive, but it’s still a great starting point.
- Be very wary of weight loss supplements, sports nutrition supplements (including protein powders) and powdered “whole food” supplements (e.g., powdered greens). While no supplement manufacturer is immune to quality problems, my unscientific observations have been that marketers of products in these categories tend to run into the most trouble with the FDA for contaminated or dangerous products, and are often subject to recalls. Lots of these marketers are small-scale operations looking to turn a quick buck, and in my professional opinion, there are *very limited* circumstances in which using these products would be necessary or beneficial to one’s health. If you’re still interested in trying them, get the professional opinion of a registered dietitian or medical professional– don’t rely on the advice of your fitness trainer, colonics technician or an otherwise self-designated nutrition coach.
- And speaking of recalls, stay current with the FDA’s latest product recalls of supplements, medications and food by subscribing to its e-mail update service for safety alerts.