Getting all your nutrients from food is an ideal scenario. However, as you probably know, it’s not always that easy to accomplish. That’s why sometimes using supplements to complement or enhance your existing diet can be a great idea. But not all supplements are created equal. There is a huge amount of variation in quality between brands and it’s important to know exactly what to look for when buying supplements. Let’s consider a few factors.
Read the Label
The first thing to look for when considering a supplement is the dose. How much of the nutrient is in each serving, irrespective of whether it’s a tablet or a capsule? Look at multivitamins, as an example. Many multivitamins contain a broad spectrum of vitamin and mineral ingredients, which looks great on the surface. However, it’s very hard to squeeze a substantial amount of all of those ingredients into just one pill.
The solution adopted by many manufacturers is to put very small amounts inside the tablet or capsule. The problem is these tiny doses are way below the dose required to have any real physiological effect.
Thus, you will want to look at the list of ingredients on the label to understand how much of each nutrient is included in a product. In addition, scrutinizing the list and quantity of ingredients allows you to compare value for money between supplements.
On that note, rather than thinking of how much a supplement costs per serving (because serving size will vary from product to product), consider how much a supplement costs in terms of dose (for example, $/mg). Most of the time, purchasing cheap, low-potency supplements means you’re going to have to take a fistful of tablets to get the same dose that you can achieve in one or two higher quality capsules or tablets.
Look for Third-Party Certifications
Third-party certifications are important. They will confirm you really are purchasing a premium supplement. There are several different third-party certifications which cover different products.
GMP, or Good Manufacturing Practice, are the practices required to conform to the guidelines for food or pharmaceutical products. These guidelines provide the minimum requirements a pharmaceutical or food product manufacturer must meet to certify their products are high quality and do not pose any risk to you, the consumer. Look out for a GMP badge on the label of any supplement you’re thinking of taking.
The International Fish Oil Standards (IFOS) Program is the only third-party testing and certification program for fish oil supplements. IFOS sets the world’s highest standards for purity, potency and freshness.
Similarly, the Clean Label Project provides third-party analysis of consumer goods. They recently tested protein powder supplements to find out what’s inside. What’s great is they give a comprehensive report including which brands to choose, and importantly, which brands to avoid.
Check Out Any Additional Ingredients
You also want to read the label to look for excessive amounts of additional ingredients, which may indicate poor quality of a supplement. To be clear, in some cases, these ingredients are harmless. For example, it’s normal to have capsule materials such as bovine or fish gelatin, as well as some anti-caking agents in tablets and capsules to prevent ingredients from clumping together. Also, you should know manufacturers often add antioxidants to oils — for instance, vitamin D or omega-3 supplements — to protect the supplement from oxidation or spoiling.
In other cases, these additional ingredients could raise a red flag. You might discover some capsules have an enteric coating, which is often cloudy in appearance. Enteric coatings are commonly synthetic and are normally made of PVC or BPA — substances which are best avoided or minimized, if possible. Research has shown enteric-coated supplements often release the supplement prematurely or too late to be adequately absorbed in the digestive system (1).
Here’s another good tip: avoid supplements that contain traces of soy, gluten and nuts. This may indicate a manufacturing process that doesn’t focus sufficiently on the purity of its products.
Take Note of Propriety Blends
A “proprietary blend” on a nutrition label should be a huge red flag. A proprietary blend is a list of ingredients that are part of a product formula specific to a manufacturer. Normally, in the US, the FDA requires manufacturers to list all the ingredients and their quantities in a product on its label, unless the ingredients are part of a so-called proprietary blend. In this case, the quantity of the ingredient doesn’t need to be specified.
The problem with proprietary blends is clear. There could be something in the blend that adversely affects you and you won’t know what it is or how much of it you’re consuming.
If there is no third-party certification, you’re very much in the dark about the nature and quality of the product.
Supplements can be a healthy addition to your regular diet. As long as you do your homework, you can find a high-quality product that meets your needs without the drawbacks. Always read the labels, check for proprietary blends, note any additional ingredients, and look for third-party certifications.
- “Applied Biopharmaceutics & Pharmacokinetics, Seventh Edition”, Shargel, L. and Yu, A. B. C. 2015.