If you’re like most people, you probably give your supplements the benefit of the doubt. You assume that what’s on the label is what’s in the bottle. Unfortunately, adulterated and contaminated supplements are a humongous problem.
What if your probiotic was contaminated with a fungus that could give you a life-threatening intestinal infection? Or if your Echinacea was almost entirely chopped up house plants with a little wheat thrown in? Or your pre-workout was spiked with steroids?
The shocking reality is that all of these things have happened and they’re much more common than you’d think. In 2015, the New York State attorney general found that 80 percent of herbal supplements from Walmart, Walgreens, Target, and GNC contained none of the herbs listed on their labels. In most cases, the supplements contained cheap fillers like rice, beans, peas, and house plants.
For competitive athletes who get drug tested, it’s even more of a problem, with roughly 20 percent of supplements containing banned substances such as anabolic steroids.
But this bad news doesn’t mean you should avoid supplements entirely. There are many companies that offer the nutrients we need at an affordable price, without compromising quality or purity. Here are ten tips for buying top quality supplements so that you don’t put your health or your athletic career at risk.
#1: Check Front & Back Labels For Errors
You’d be surprised with some of the labeling errors out there. From mislabeling ingredients (for example, labeling a B12 vitamin as pyroxidine, which is actually vitamin B6) to having mismatched front and back labels, some companies clearly aren’t paying attention. Don’t get caught with something you didn’t intend to buy.
#2: Choose A Brand That is GMP Certified By The FDA
A product that simply says “natural” or “top quality” is not good enough without documented testing. The best supplement companies back up their claims with a certification of Good Manufacturing Processes from the FDA. They will also do independent testing of raw ingredients and the finished products and provide information about their supply chain, ensuring quality and purity of supplements.
#3: Look For Chelated Minerals
Minerals like magnesium or calcium are always bound with another compound for stability. Minerals that are bound with amino acids are very well absorbed because they are treated by the body like proteins, whereas only a very small percentage of minerals that are bound to organic salts make it into circulation because they are easily blocked by things like fiber, phytates, or coffee.
Examples of mineral salts to avoid are “carbonate,” and “oxide.” Instead, look for amino acid chelates such as “taurate,” “glycinate,” and “citrate.”
#4: Keep Your “Other Ingredients List” To A Minimum
Although some fillers are necessary in high quality supplements, avoid artificial flavorings, colorings, and preservatives.
#5: Look For Clearly Focused Formulas With Research To Back Them Up
Multivitamins and supplement formulas that are designed to combat specific health issues such as stress should be based on human clinical trials or testing to show that they work. It’s easy to make up a supplement geared at a health condition.
For instance, the company Consumer Reports demonstrated how easy it is to make dangerous, untested supplements by producing a weight loss formula called Thinnitol. They put in diuretics and stimulants that are known to suppress appetite: Guarana, CLA, citrus aurantium, and green tea. The scary thing is that any random person could put together a few ingredients, slap a label on it, and market it without any testing to show it’s safe, let alone that it works.
#6: Don’t Buy The Cheapest Supplements
The cheapest supplements often have a form of the nutrient in question that may be hard for the body to absorb. A supplement does NOTHING for you if your body can’t digest it.
For example, the anti-inflammatory herb turmeric can be purchased in its standard form for a quarter of the cost of a form that is bound with piperine, a compound in black pepper. But research shows that the combination of piperine and curcumin is absorbed up to 10 times better than the standard form. The best value comes from the version that gets absorbed even if it comes at a higher price.
#7: Does It Have An Expiration Date?
The FDA doesn’t require that products have expiration dates, however, quality manufacturers will voluntarily list expiration dates. Their products will undergo extensive testing to make sure they can successfully guarantee the label strength until the expiration date.
For something like fish oil, which can become rancid, or probiotics, which must be alive to have any benefit, this is critical. For probiotics, check to make sure the product is guaranteed through the expiration date, not just at the time of manufacture, which means nothing since you are using it months after it leaves the manufacturing facility.
#8: Ask Questions
Asking questions can help you scope out the good and bad products but it also helps you clarify what you’re taking, why you’re taking it, and how much you need.
Consider the following questions (with the third being relevant for athletes who get drug tested):
Will this supplement help me?
Will it hurt me?
Will it make me test positive on a drug test?
For example, caffeine is one of the most powerful performance enhancing supplements available to you at reasonable doses (1 to 5 mg/kg/bodyweight which is equal to 2 to 4 cups of coffee).
At higher doses or if you have certain diseases or a genetic polymorphism that makes you extra sensitive to caffeine, it can be dangerous. Currently, caffeine is not banned by the World Anti-Doping Association but it is banned by the NCAA, which means you can use it in the Olympics but NOT in collegiate sports.
#9: Is It Hypoallergenic?
Top quality supplement companies will list specific allergens that are absent from their products. Check for something along the lines of: “Formulated to exclude: wheat, gluten, soy, egg, nuts, tree nuts, colors, artificial flavors, and preservatives.”
You shouldn’t have to go on a scavenger hunt to find this information. It should be easily available on the bottle and the company web site.
#10: Does It Sound To Good To Be True?
Do the claims for the product seem exaggerated or unrealistic?
Is the supplement claiming to cure an ailment?
This is unacceptable according to FDA guidelines, which allow the three types of label claims on a supplement bottle:
1) Nutrient content claims to characterize the level of vitamins or minerals in a product: “A good source of vitamin C” or “high in antioxidants.”
2) Structure and function claims to describe the basic benefits of the product on a particular structure or function in the body: “Helps support healthy joints” or “helps maintain healthy blood sugar levels.”
3) FDA-approved claims that describe the relationship between a substance and reduced risk of disease.
The Bottom Line: Although supplementation can play a vital role in rounding out your diet for optimal health and performance, you need to make sure you’re getting the highest quality products from the most trustworthy companies. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, be curious, and of course, talk with your doctor prior to starting a supplement.