Do Your Supplements Perform as Advertised?

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Supplements offer extra nutrition to insufficient diets, but must be selected thoughtfully. Supplements can pose a health risk depending on the ingredients and dosages. 

Nutritional supplements are a $32 billion a year industry in North America, according to Forbes. Many health conscious consumers can't get all the necessary nutrients from their diet, so they look to supplements for that little extra nutritional support. Unfortunately, purchasing dietary supplements can be a total waste of money, and even a health risk, if the products do not contain the active ingredients in the right amounts. Some even contain contaminants.

What Makes A Supplement Harmful?

  • Many dietary supplements contain more than one ingredient, and the label may not list all active ingredients.
  • Supplements may interact with other medications you are taking.
  • An herbal supplement may not contain the correct plant species.
  • The amounts of the active ingredients may be lower or higher than the label states. Even when the label is correct, the amount may be so low as to have no therapeutic effect at all.
  • Some forms of a nutrient may be more bioavailable than others.
  • Supplements may be contaminated with pesticides or metals, contain unlabeled or illegal ingredients, or fillers such as rice and wheat. It's important to consider that theThe Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates dietary supplement products and ingredients differently than medication. The FDA places the responsibility on manufacturers to ensure products are safe, and will only taking action if an unsafe supplement reaches market. Sometimes manufacturers are not careful or honest.

    How Do You Protect Yourself Against Ineffective or Harmful Supplements?

  • Look for Seals of Approval:  Several organizations test and evaluate nutritional supplements for quality, purity and potency. Those that pass can display the seal on the label. U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), ConsumerLab and Natural Products Association (NPA) are three trusted testing organizations.

  • Know Your Ingredients:  Before you shop, learn about recommended dosages for key ingredients. Consult this comprehensive table from the National Agricultural Library website. Also, examine labels for ingredients you wouldn't want in a dietary supplement, such as sugar, artificial coloring or flavoring, or preservatives.

  • Check for Alerts and Recalls:  The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has an "Alerts and Advisories" list for dietary supplements. Most alerts are for undeclared ingredients, but they also address other dangerous health risks and deceptive advertising.

  • Other Tips:  Check expiration dates. If the product doesn't have one, move on; it could be very old. This Supplement Buyer's Checklist neatly summarizes the information you'll want to have before you buy.

Be a Savvy Consumer

If you regularly take dietary supplements use this guide to purchase only the highest quality supplements on the market. In addition, don't forget to check the supplements you already have in your cupboard. You wouldn't want to endanger your health while trying to improve it.   Photo Credit: Neeta Lind via Flickr.  


Sue S.

Most days, when I'm not spinning my own words or editing someone else's, you can find me contemplating the fresh veggies at the farmers market or gazing into tide pools. Not what you needed to know about me? OK then. I have a master's degree in library science, and I've been w...

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