What’s in that Supplement Bottle?

What's in that supplement bottle anyway?

Need a supplement?

Any trip to a grocery or health food store can tell you that there are lot of different supplements out there. Finding one that suits your needs is not always an easy task. Brands, formulations, doses, and health claims on the label can leave people 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.

The lack of strict regulations have made this a real concern. For example, issues about the content of herbal supplements have been raised and are under investigation. A study on fish oil supplements raised concerns about the quality and freshness of those products and, possibly, other products containing omega-3 fatty acids. There have been other reports and investigations over the years, often with alarming findings.

However, despite what it might sound like, quality supplements DO exist on the market. Here are some places you can go for help:

Look for these marks to ensure quality supplements

The U.S. 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 their 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 not-for-profit 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.com and LabDoor.com provide an analysis of commercially-available supplements to determine if the product meets the claims on the label. ConsumerLab selects products to review, then publishes results of laboratory tests in comprehensive reports online and enables companies of all sizes to have their products quality tested for potential inclusion in its list of approved products. Labdoor buys supplements off retail shelves and, after a detailed chemical analysis, translates this data into simple grades and rankings, but does not endorse any products.

LPI RX for HeartOther supplement rating sites exist, but be aware of their practices (and potential biases) with paid reviews and advertising.

Although the quality and content of over-the-counter supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), except when it comes to safety in the manufacturing process, they do maintain a list of known contaminated and tainted products. Unfortunately, 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 vitamins and minerals to keep you healthy, but recognizes that supplements are sometimes necessary to meet your nutrition needs. Other tips for choosing the right supplement can be found in the LPI’s Rx for Health and Micronutrient Information Center (MIC).


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Published by

Alexander Michels, PhD

Alexander Michels is a Research Associate and Communications Officer for the Linus Pauling Institute. He has an extensive background in the research on vitamin C, with a specialty in understanding vitamin C transport through the body. His expertise also extends to research on other aspects of antioxidant vitamin metabolism and the action of phytochemicals.