Q: I’ve been reading a lot lately about claims that vitamins in pill form are worthless and unreliable. Do you have a recommendation for where to buy worthy vitamin pills?

Answer: We don’t make endorsements, but we can offer advice for choosing supplements wisely.supplement bottle

It’s important to remember that supplements are not always necessary and they are not regulated as rigorously as drugs, so it is largely up to consumers to determine a product’s appropriateness, safety and potency.

Below we offer some concrete tips.

> Determine if you actually need the supplement.

The Linus Pauling Institute promotes healthy eating as the primary source of vitamins and minerals to keep you healthy, but we recognize that supplements are sometimes necessary to meet a person’s nutrition needs. The institute has a long-standing recommendation that most people should take a daily multivitamin, because data show that the majority of the U.S. population do not get adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals from diet alone. Other supplements we feel are worth consideration for certain people (based on the available science) include the following: vitamins C, B12, and D, as well as calcium, magnesium, fish oillipoic acid and L-carnitine. Because the science is continually advancing in this field, we developed a comprehensive database called the Micronutrient Information Center which provides updated, objective information about vitamins, minerals, and other dietary factors, with the articles written by Ph.D. nutrition scientists and externally reviewed by experts in the field. On this site, you can look up details on all the supplements mentioned above, as well as many more. This tool, as well as others such as Examine.com and the advice of your doctor, can help you determine what supplements may or may not be a good match for you. You may also wish to consult our Rx for Health and our Micronutrients for Health handouts, which outline the Linus Pauling Institute’s general recommendations on healthy diet, lifestyle, and supplement use.

> Look for a “USP Verified” or “NSF” mark on the label.

When purchasing supplements, we recommend going with a brand that bears the USP or NSF mark on the label. Both the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) and NSF International (NSF) are not-for-profit agencies dedicated to verifying the quality, purity, and potency of dietary supplements. Their programs include audits of manufacturing facilities and product testing to verify that what is actually in the bottle matches what is stated on the label (and that products are free from contaminants like lead or bacteria).

A list of products that have the “USP Verified” seal can be found on their website. To find products with the NSF mark, you can search their online database of supplements.

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.

> Seek out information from reputable companies offering independent testing.

Websites like ConsumerLab.com and LabDoor.com provide an analysis of supplements to determine if the product meets the claims on the label (some content requires a paid subscription to access).

Word to the wise: other supplement rating sites exist but be aware of the potential for bias (paid reviews and advertising can be spun as objective analysis).

> Check the FDA’s tainted products list and sign up for their updates.

In contrast to prescription and over-the-counter drugs, dietary supplements do not generally require approval by the FDA before coming onto the market. But the FDA does police a fraction of supplements that are already on the market, and they publish these results. You can find this info on their list of known contaminated and tainted products and/or sign up for their updates.

This article first appeared in the Oregon Stater as part of a regular Q&A feature column. Have a question for LPI?  Email LPI@oregonstate.edu.

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Anne Glausser

Anne Glausser was the communications manager for the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University from Jan 2016-Feb 2017. Before taking on this role, she was a coordinating producer for Cleveland's NPR/PBS member station, ideastream. She got started in journalism at PRI’s Living on Earth, and has also worked in research at the Harvard School of Public Health. Anne got her master's degree from MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing.