If you read this blog regularly, you know we’re not fond of taking multivitamins ourselves and we’d rather see YOU get most of your vitamins, minerals, and nutrients from eating whole, healthy foods rather than from a bottle.
However, as we pointed out in the last article, there are cases where taking a supplement is appropriate.We discussed some of those circumstances in this post. We won’t go over those again in this article.
Instead, we’ll assume a health care professional has advised you to take a supplement and you’re ready to purchase it or you’ve done extensive research and discovered a particular supplement seems to help a health problem you have.
How to know if vitamins are good quality – that’s the focus of this post.
If you take a vitamin, mineral, or any other type of nutritional supplement, what you’re putting into your body should correspond to what it says on the label and not include things you don’t want – like contaminants and heavy metals.
You might not think that’s likely, but there are numerous instances of third-party testing uncovering heavy metals in vitamin, mineral, and nutritional supplements. That makes us uncomfortable, as it probably does you!
Nutritional Supplements and Vitamins: Separating the Wheat from the Chafe
We subscribe to a service that does independent testing of vitamin, mineral, and nutritional supplements and makes the information available to the public. It’s useful to have information like this since the regulation of the supplement industry, or lack thereof leaves much to be desired.
Did you know the supplement industry operates to the tune of almost 33 billion dollars a year? That tells you how many people are taking vitamins and nutritional supplements.In 2006, 59% of women and 47% of men were taking some form of supplement. With so many people taking them, you’d think they’d be more closely regulated.
The Crazy “Regulation” of Vitamins and Supplements
The fact is a supplement company doesn’t have to prove a vitamin or nutritional supplement is safe before sending it to market. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? We’re used to the rigorous testing medications have to go through before they can be prescribed that we expect the same of supplements. Instead, the supplement industry gets off too easy.
In fact, the FDA only steps in if someone reports adverse side effects, gets sick, ends up in the hospital, or, even worse, dies after using a supplement. Vitamin and supplement makers essentially regulate THEMSELVES unless something catastrophic happens.
Adverse Reactions Are NOT Uncommon
Throughout the history of supplements, companies have put out products that are potentially harmful. For example, in 2006, testing of dietary supplements for weight loss revealed ephedrine alkaloids, stimulants that cause a rise in blood pressure and could lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Plus, over a five-year period, between 2007 and 2012, the FDA received more than 6,000 reports of adverse reactions to supplements.Just this past year, a study published in BMC Medicine used a technique called barcoding to analyze 44 herbal products from a variety of companies, including big names like Target and GNC.
They found not just a few but a whopping 60% of the herbal products they tested contained plant ingredients and fillers that weren’t listed on the label. Some contained NONE of the active herbal ingredients. That’s problematic! There’s the chance that what’s in there is toxic. Plus, if you have allergies you could react to something not listed in the product.
You have to be really careful if you have celiac disease and have to avoid gluten.
Sports, Bodybuilding, and Weight Loss Supplements – Be Particularly Wary
If you look back across the history of supplements, weight loss supplements and supplements for athletes and bodybuilders have been the most problematic and prone towards inconsistencies.
Over the years, the FDA has recalled a number of bodybuilding supplements because they were laced with steroids. They also banned some weight loss supplements because they contained prescription medications.
Another category where you might get more than you bargained for is sexual performance supplements like “herbal Viagra.” Don’t know about you but we think the advertisements for herbal Viagra are a little sleazy. Doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, does it?
How to Know if Vitamins Are Good Quality
Another problem with supplements is the number of ingredients inside the bottle isn’t always consistent with the label. Some don’t contain as much of an active ingredient listed on the label, some contain too much, and, believe it or not, some contain NONE of the active ingredients.
Talk about NOT getting what you pay for! This is confirmed by independent investigations done by Consumer Reports. How do you sort through the options and choose the safest supplements?
Characteristics of Reputable Vitamin and Supplement Companies
A reputable supplement company usually has a team of researchers, physicians, nutritionists, and other experts that guide them and keep them up-to-date as to the efficacy of a particular supplement.
Many of the reputable ones also submit their products for independent testing by a third party for verification. If so, they should be willing to share the results with you. If you check out their website, they usually tell you this, but you can always call them to get more information.
Another way to get reassurance that you’re dealing with a reputable company is to buy brands that put their products through rigorous independent testing to verify they contain the ingredients they say they do and only those ingredients. Companies that have passed certain standards can apply for a seal. Some to look for are the Consumer Lab seal, U.S. Pharmacopeia seal, or the NSF International seal.
One caveat – some companies that don’t carry a seal still offer a quality product. Getting a seal is expensive and some companies can’t afford it, especially in the early stages. Buying products with one of these seals do offer additional reassurance but just because a company doesn’t carry a seal doesn’t mean their products are of low quality.
We recommend NOT buying supplements from other countries where the standards may be lower than in the U.S.
Research Before Buying
Another indicator that a supplement company is likely reputable and isn’t fly-by-night is if they belong to the Council for Responsible Nutrition. To be a member, a company has to commit to using high-quality manufacturing practices.
We believe you can feel more confident buying from companies with brands that you recognize and that have been around for at least five years. Investigate a little further before buying from companies that have only been around a year or two or who have undergone several name changes.
Tips for Determining if a Supplement Company is of High Quality
If you plan on taking a mineral supplement like calcium or magnesium (as always make sure you need it first), look at the form the mineral is in.If it’s in the form of a phosphate, carbonate, sulfate, or oxide, for example, calcium carbonate, it’s likely of low quality since these forms are inexpensive and not well absorbed.
Higher quality forms include gluconate, ascorbate, fumarate, malate, succinate, tartrate, and citrate.
If you’re curious about which supplements are most popular, here’s a list:
- Meal Replacements
- Sports Nutrition Supplements
- B Vitamins
- Vitamin C
- Glucosamine and Chondroitin
- Homeopathic Medicines
- Vitamin D
- Fish oil
(from “20 Dietary Supplement Industry Statistics”)
Be aware, we’re not endorsing any of these just want you to see what people take. For the record, we don’t recommend multivitamins for most people and are also skeptical about homeopathic medications. We do believe that vitamin D supplements are beneficial. When Dr. A checks vitamin D levels on people, more than 60% come back too low.
Glucosamine and chondroitin also seem to help people with arthritis, although the studies don’t always agree.
Supplements to Avoid
We’d also like to make you aware of some supplements that are potentially risky:
- Bitter orange – elevates blood pressure, rapid heart rate
- Colloidal silver – can cause your skin to turn blue, kidney damage, nerve problems
- Yohimbe – elevate blood pressure, heart problems
- Kava – liver damage
- Germanium – kidney damage
- Comfrey – liver damage
This isn’t a complete list, just a few of the more obvious ones you should avoid.
Another type of supplement to approach with caution are those that contain multiple vitamins, minerals, and other components formulated for a particular condition or to prevent a particular health problem, for example, supplements for heart health, brain health, or breast health.
These types of supplements often contain such low quantities of each component that it’s not enough to offer benefits. Plus, there may be ingredients included that aren’t proven and you don’t want.
Another Warning about Vitamin and Nutrition Supplements
Always let your doctor know if you’re taking a supplement. Some can interfere with prescription medications or reduce the breakdown of a particular medication, causing the level to rise too high. It’s especially important to stop certain supplements before surgery, even dental surgery since some interfere with blood clotting.
Another time to avoid some supplements is when you’re pregnant. Your doctor will recommend that you take a folate supplement and iron during pregnancy, and be sure you do. Folate reduces the risk of a certain type of birth defect that affects the brain and spinal cord.
The Bottom Line
We’re not anti-supplement but pro-food. If you can get the vitamins and minerals your body needs from diet, that’s the best way to go. The whole food offers benefits that an isolated component of that food can’t.
Sometimes the benefits come from an interaction between more than one component in a food. Nature has packed everything into a “ready to go” package that has what you need.
On the other hand, we take some supplements ourselves. We carefully researched each one and we’re not afraid to drop a supplement if conflicting information comes out. In a future article, we’ll list what we take and why.
“The best and most efficient pharmacy is within your own system.” ~Robert C. Peale
In the future, we plan on linking to at least one supplement source in the shopping section of Healthy Lifestyle Docs that has been tested independently and has what it says it has without contaminants. We’ve already done that for a few supplements but plan on adding more.
If you purchase an item through a link, we get a small commission (around 6%). That goes toward supporting the website.
Also, we’re curious as to whether you want more articles on supplements? Do you have specific questions? Just shoot us an email.
Consumer Reports. “The dangers of dietary and nutritional supplements investigated”
“Guidelines For Choosing Vitamin & Mineral Supplements” Raymond Francis
BrandonGaille.com. “20 Dietary Supplement Industry Statistics”
Consumer Reports. “Are Dietary Supplements Dangerous?”