What vitamins should I take is a question we get a lot of, but today we’re going to focus on making sure the vitamins and supplements you take actually contain what they claim.
As you know, we always encourage you to get most of your vitamins and minerals by eating a healthy diet. Nature provides nutrients in a form your body can best absorb and use.
Picture in your mind an apple and all the vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals naturally present in the fruit. It’s hard to package all of that goodness into a tiny pill. Plus, fruit in its natural state contains fiber, something most of us don’t get enough of. Whole foods rule!
That being said, there are situations where you might benefit from taking a vitamin, mineral or nutrient supplement. We take them ourselves to get certain nutrients that it’s hard to get enough of through diet.
One example is probiotics. Since we don’t eat a lot of yogurt or other fermented foods, we take a probiotic supplement for digestive and immune health. Sometime in the future, we’ll let you know exactly what we take and why.
Here are a few situations where you might need a vitamin, mineral or other supplement:
- If you eat a vegan or vegetarian diet, you may not get enough zinc, calcium, vitamin D or vitamin B12.
- If you’re restricting calories to lose weight, you may not be eating enough food to supply your body with essential vitamins and minerals.
- If you’re pregnant, you need more iron and folate.
- If you’re a pre-menopausal female, you may need extra iron, but don’t take an iron supplement unless you really need it. Have your doctor check an iron panel.
- If you have certain medical problems, you may benefit from specific supplements that research suggests might help that particular problem.
- If a trip to McDonald’s is your “go to” lunch and dinner, you may need a multivitamin or other supplements to compensate for what you aren’t getting from those fast food French fries.
- If you’re over the age of 50, you may need more vitamin B12, but it’s best to check a B12 level before taking supplemental vitamin B12.
- If you get little sun exposure, you may need a vitamin D supplement. Best to check your level before taking a supplement.
- If you’re at high risk for a particular health problem based on family history and there’s a supplement that could lower your risk for that problem.
Supplements: Are You Really Getting What You Think You Are?
We recently read a disturbing article in the New York Times about herbal supplements. In 2013, a group of researchers visited various health food and vitamin stores in the U.S. and Canada and purchased bottles of a number of herbal supplements, without singling out any one brand.
They then tested them for purity using a sophisticated type of genetic testing called DNA barcoding.
Sadly, the tests showed many of the herbal supplements they tested didn’t have what was listed on the label.
In fact, a third of the herbs they tested, including bottles of St. John’s wort, contained NONE of what was stated on the label. Zero. Zilch.
Plus, some of the herbal supplements they looked at were made with mostly inexpensive filler material like rice, wheat, and plant powder.
Even more disturbing was the fact that a bottle of Echinacea, an herb used to treat colds, contained extracts from a plant linked with side effects like nausea, gas and skin problems.
More Recent Bad News about the Vitamin and Supplement Industry
Have you ever bought a supplement at Walmart, Target or GNC? Yep, most of us have at one time or other. A study conducted by Clarkson University, using DNA barcoding again, showed hundreds of bottles of herbal supplements from Target, Walmart and GNC didn’t have what they claimed they did.
In fact, 4 out of 5 of the supplements they tested contained none of the herbs listed on the ingredient list. Plus, many were contaminated with ingredients NOT listed on the label. The one that had the most mislabeled herbal supplements was Walmart.
I don’t know about you, but this sets off alarm bells for us. Here’s a short video about the story:
Although we don’t specifically take herbal supplements, why couldn’t the same be true for vitamin supplements, mineral supplements and products like probiotics? Some herbal supplement makers also make other types of supplements.
This article certainly didn’t boost our confidence about the supplement industry, so here’s what we did:
To get a clearer picture of what’s going on with supplements, we signed up with a site that does independent testing of supplements and reports on their purity and what’s actually in them.
After looking at the site, we’ve already made some discoveries. For example, the probiotic supplement we take only contains 16% of the probiotic bacteria it says it does on the label – and we purchased this from a reputable online company – one of the largest!
How Can Vitamin and Supplement Companies Get By With This Charade?
That’s the question we’re asking. Most people are surprised to learn that supplements, even ones taken by mouth, are not regulated. They aren’t removed from store shelves unless people report becoming sick or injured by a supplement.
Even though there are guidelines in place on how dietary supplements should be manufactured, manufacturers aren’t always in compliance and the FDA only audits a small number of manufacturing companies.
In fact, the FDA doesn’t even track how many supplement companies there are in the U.S. How’s that for lack of regulation?
Here’s a quote from the FDA:
“Except in the case of a new dietary ingredient, where pre-market review for safety data and other information is required by law, a firm does not have to provide FDA with the evidence it relies on to substantiate safety or effectiveness before or after it markets its products.”
Pretty disturbing, huh? Plus, the FDA has to demonstrate that a dietary supplement is unsafe before it can pull it off the market. Sounds a little backwards, doesn’t it?
Shouldn’t they have to prove a supplement is safe BEFORE they put it on the market in the first place? Especially since more than half of all adults take some form of dietary or nutritional supplement. The FDA does NOT analyze supplements like they do drugs before they allow them on the market.
Not to say that all supplement manufacturers cut corners. It just means if you’re going to take a supplement, don’t buy something based solely on price and convenience. Grabbing the least expensive bottle of probiotics at a discount drugstore to save money could be a complete waste of money – or even harmful.
Safety is at stake too. Some supplements, especially weight loss supplements, have been tested in the past and found to contain prescription medications. Not very reassuring, to say the least.
Other Little Known Facts about Supplement Manufacturers
When you pick up a bottle of supplements and see the brand name and logo emblazoned across the front, don’t assume the company manufactured the supplement. Most companies farm supplement manufacturing out to third-party manufacturers and then put their label on it.
How do you know if a supplement you’re taking is farmed out? It should say “manufactured by” on the label. If you see the company name, then they were responsible for making it. If you see “manufactured for” and the company name, it was made by a third party for that particular company.
Ideally, a supplement you purchase should be tested for contaminants like heavy metals, microorganisms, pesticides and environmental contaminants that might be in the raw materials.
If you can identify the manufacturer of a product you use, you can always call and ask how they test the ingredients they use to make their supplements. Ideally, they should test every shipment of raw materials they receive, but not all do.
Proprietary Supplement Blends
Another “trick” supplement manufacturers use to increase the perceived health benefits of a supplement is using “proprietary blends.” For example, you might see listed on the label “a proprietary blend of cinnamon powder and cocoa powder” or something along those lines.
In this case, you don’t really know how much of each of those ingredients you’re getting. The FDA doesn’t require manufacturers to list the amount of the ingredients in a proprietary blend. So, you may be getting a dose that’s so low it won’t have an effect.
At the other end of the spectrum, in a proprietary blend, you could get a dose of something that’s too high for you, for example, if you’re sensitive to caffeine and a supplement contains a proprietary blend of caffeine in an undisclosed amount. Unfortunately, there’s no real way to know how much of each ingredient you’re getting with a proprietary blend.
Third Party Supplement Testing
Some supplement companies go the extra mile and send their supplements out to an independent testing service for third-party certification. We like those companies!
These services test to make sure the product has the ingredients listed on the label in the amount and potency the manufacturer claims. They also test for contaminants.
One such independent testing service is the United States Pharmacopeia (USP). Supplements that have been tested by USP and passed can proudly display this fact on their label. When you buy one of these supplements, it’s an extra level of reassurance that you’re getting what you pay for.
Some supplement manufacturers take it in even further and have their supplements tested by a third party AND have the facilities used to make them inspected. We like this idea!
Should you avoid nutritional supplements that haven’t been third-party tested? Just because a supplement manufacturer doesn’t use third-party testing doesn’t mean they’re disreputable. It costs money to have products third-party tested and some manufacturers, especially early on, can’t afford it.
That’s why we like the idea of subscribing to an independent testing firm, not chosen by the manufacturer, that tests a variety of supplements and publishes their findings. Most charge a fee for this information.
What Vitamins Should I Take: Choosing Safe Supplements
If you can, get most of your nutrients by eating a healthy diet. When you take supplements, choose one that’s been independently tested for purity and quality.
We’ll be going into more depth about which supplements are worth taking and when you might need such and such supplement in future posts.
Nutritional supplements are expensive, so you better get what you pay for. Even more important is safety – avoiding contaminants like heavy metals. Shop safely for supplements and don’t use them as a substitute for a healthy diet.
New York Times. “Herbal Supplements Are Often Not What They Seem”
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Dietary Supplements”
Am J Clin Nutr April 2003 vol. 77 no. 4 1001S-1007S.
CBS News. “Herbal Supplements Industry Lashes Out at Fraud Claims”