A trip to a grocery or health food store shows that there are many different kinds of supplements out there. It can be difficult for consumers to choose a particular supplement given the large number of options available and the wide variety of health claims. There is a dizzying array of options, doses, and formulations that can often leave consumers baffled.
What makes matters worse is the possibility that what is listed on a supplement label might be completely different than what is actually inside the bottle. Most recently, issues about fraudulent claims of the content of herbal supplements have been raised and are currently under investigation. Media reports on this inquiry sometimes incorrectly referred to the supplements in question as vitamins, highlighting the inattention to detail by journalists that incorrectly lump all supplements together.
However, that does not mean other dietary supplements can’t be scrutinized. A recent analysis of fish oil supplements in New Zealand has also raised concerns about the quality and freshness of those products and, possibly, other products containing omega-3 fatty acids. Again, these results cannot and should not be used to gauge all other supplements on the market, since quality supplements DO exist (despite what it might sound like on the news).
At the Linus Pauling Institute, we know that finding these high-quality supplements can be difficult. Although our online resource, the Micronutrient Information Center (MIC), provides information about vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and other nutrients commonly found in supplements, we do not research or recommend specific supplement brands or formulations. However, that doesn’t mean you are completely without resources to find a quality supplement.
Here are some places you can go for help:
The US Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) is a nonprofit agency dedicated to verifying the quality, purity, and potency of dietary supplements. As part of their verification program, the USP audits the manufacturer’s facility and does an extensive review of quality control and manufacturing documentation to ensure that supplements are produced according to specifications. The USP also tests the supplements produced in this process, verifying that the product matches claims of quantity on labels. If a dietary supplement passes this review, it is awarded the USP Verified Mark. Although other companies may post the letters USP on their bottles, without the official seal they are not considered to be approved by the Convention. A list of products that have the USP Verified seal can be found on their website. In a similar fashion, another nonprofit agency called NSF International has a verification program for dietary supplements. NSF has an online database of supplements verified by their program; these supplements bear the NSF verification seal.
However, both the NSF and USP programs are voluntary – manufacturers can choose to participate in the program or not – and a detailed analysis of the products tested may not be made available. If you’re looking for information about the quality and composition of specific dietary supplements, there are additional online resources. Sites like ConsumerLab.comLabDoor.com provide an analysis of commercially-available supplements to determine if the product meets the claims on the label. Recommendations made by these sites are based on a variety of factors, including quality and cost of the supplement.
Unfortunately, the quality and content of over-the-counter supplements are not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), except when it comes to safety in the manufacturing process. The FDA does maintain a list of known contaminated and tainted products, but this does not extend to the purity or potency of active ingredients in your supplement.
The Linus Pauling Institute promotes eating a healthy diet as the primary source of micronutrients to keep you healthy. However, we recognize that sometimes supplements are necessary to prevent gaps between recommendations and the nutritional content of your diet. Together, the resources above should give you enough information to help you choose a dietary supplement that suits your needs. Other tips for choosing the right supplement can be found in the LPI’s Rx for Health.