By Heather L. Dyson
Reaching our goals with health and fitness can be overwhelming and exhausting at times. It can be hard to resist a tagline promising weight loss, muscle gain, more energy, or any other enticing result that has been eluding us. Many supplements rely on the common desires we as a society have when it comes to our health and wellness, often targeting the areas we struggle with the most. Not all supplements are created equal, which is why it is so important to understand how this market operates and is regulated before you decide to add supplements to your routine regimen.
One of the biggest things to know right off the bat is how the supplement industry is regulated. The FDA oversees supplements as a subset of food and does not consider supplements to be medical in nature. Because of this viewpoint, supplements are not required to be tested or reviewed for safety and efficacy prior to being released on the market. Individual manufacturers are responsible for testing their own products and are permitted to make claims about their products as long as they do not make guarantees about specific health conditions (1).
So what does this all mean? Essentially, supplement manufacturers are given free reign to create products without regulated and stringent testing or approval and can advertise them with blanket concepts using generally accepted evidence (2). In fact, the only time the FDA currently intervenes with supplement manufacturing and distribution is if 1) the product is proven to cause harm to consumers after being reported by the manufacturer or 2) if the product makes a medicinal claim. Other than that, supplement manufacturers can technically develop products under good faith without having to worry about checking to make sure their work is safe and claims are reliable. The only thing that manufacturers are required to do is indicate that their product is not intended to treat, diagnose, or cure any health conditions (1). Other than that, it’s all fairly open-ended.
This is an unfortunate gap in the area of food and drug regulation that leaves consumers susceptible to potentially unsafe or ineffective products. With current government regulations, supplement manufacturers can add in any ingredients they wish without verifying the interactions or adequate amounts. Oftentimes, this can result in supplements potentially having too much of an ingredient, which can cause a number of health issues. Overdosing on vitamins and minerals through supplementation is all too common, and can be very serious or potentially fatal depending on the nutrient and amount consumed (3). Unfortunately, the supplement label may not be a reliable source of information to avoid this problem. Manufacturers are able to add ingredients without having them explicitly listed and can omit used ingredients from the label completely.
Because of this lack of proactive regulation, we are left with a series of supplements that are questionable at best. The good news is that not all supplements are bad and not all supplement manufacturers are taking advantage of the system. How can we know which ones are which? Luckily, there are some third-party agencies that have taken on a regulatory role that manufacturers can turn to for verification. These agencies review the ingredients for safety and thoroughness on the label and also ensure that no cross-contamination was present during manufacturing, specifically with things like metals or hazardous chemicals. This bodes well for consumers in need of supplementation due to deficiencies in their diet or for other health reasons.
When shopping for supplements, look for more than just the words “verified” or “approved.” These are meaningless and are not indicative of thorough testing. Third-party agencies issue a sticker to be put on the supplement label to prove the supplement has gone through necessary safety and efficacy testing. The stickers to look for include: NSF International, ConsumerLab.com, UL, and USP (4). Note that none of these agencies will even review a product that contains illegal substances, so if you don’t see one of their approved labels, you may want to stop to question the safety of the supplement.
At the end of the day, supplementation is something that should be done after consulting with your doctor and identifying deficiencies or health conditions that affect nutrient absorption. All vitamins and minerals can be obtained naturally through a whole food diet, unless you follow a specialized diet such as vegetarian, vegan, or any other number of lifestyles. No matter what, it is best to take the time to do your research and consult a medical professional before trying a supplement to make sure it is right for you.
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