How to Choose Safer Dietary Supplements
The dietary supplements industry—including everything from multivitamins and fish oil to zinc and joint supplements¬—has grown rapidly over the last decide. But not all of the thousands of dietary supplements on the market are created equally. Some can contain ingredients not listed on the label or contaminants that can be harmful to your health. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently found multiple violations in how dietary supplements are produced.
Over the last four years, the FDA discovered violations in the manufacturing processes in nearly half of the nearly 450 dietary supplement companies it inspected. Violations were serious enough at a quarter of the facilities investigated to warrant warning letters1.
The FDA found unsanitary manufacturing conditions as well as poor quality control, according to a recent Chicago Tribune article. Some companies didn’t have standard recipes (or master manufacturing records) for their supplements. Some didn’t verify the identity of the ingredients they used, and some did not inspect or test the finished products.
While not all dietary supplements pose a problem, it can be confusing to know which supplements are safer to purchase and manufactured to the FDA’s standards. How do you determine the good products from the bad?
Tested and Certified Supplements
Certification from an independent, accredited third party helps confirm that dietary supplements contain only the ingredients and quantities shown on the label without potentially harmful levels of impurities. For example, NSF International’s dietary supplements accredited certification program validates that what’s on the label is in the bottle and that the product does not contain undeclared ingredients or unsafe levels of contaminants.
NSF International led the development of the only American national standard for dietary supplements (NSF/ANSI Standard 173) to provide a uniform way to analyze these products through rigorous lab tests and manufacturing facility inspections. The creation of this standard included input and oversight by regulators, public health experts and industry members to ensure that the proper safety parameters where in place for the evaluation of these products and ingredients.
Unlike prescription drugs, many dietary supplements are regulated similarly to foods and are not required to be tested for efficacy before being sold. NSF chemists and microbiologists use state-of-the-art lab equipment to test and evaluate the composition of dietary supplements such as vitamins, minerals, herbs/botanicals, amino acids and sports supplements. This ensures that tested and compliant ingredients are used in each tablet, across every bottle and batch, unlike the conditions found at some FDA-inspected sites.
In addition to label claim verification, NSF also tests to make sure that the supplements do not contain unsafe levels of heavy metals, microbial contaminants, pesticides or herbicides. They also verify that no unlisted ingredients are present in the supplements, which is useful for people who may have certain food allergies. Testing also ensures that certified supplements are produced in sanitary conditions, unlike those discovered by the FDA investigations.
For extra safety, NSF audits the manufacturing conditions of supplement-producing facilities twice a year and retests each certified dietary supplement every year to ensure continued compliance.
These inspections check whether companies produce supplements according to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) as outlined by the FDA. GMPs cover the conditions of the facility, whether supplements are manufactured in a standard way, and whether employees follow set procedures and cleaning practices.
Products that have not been certified aren’t necessarily bad for you, but it is a bit of a guessing game. Certification provides peace of mind and takes the mystery out of supplement safety because you know the product has been reviewed and tested by an accredited third-party expert.
Other Tips for Using Supplements
In addition to choosing certified supplements, be sure to follow the manufacturer’s recommended usage instructions. If you’re talking medications or other supplements, talk with your health care provider or pharmacist to see how they may interact with any new supplements.
Note the recommended daily allowance for any listed ingredients, and don’t take additional doses of a product. Check expiration dates and don’t use supplements that have expired or purchase supplements that are nearing the expiration date. If you have supplements that have expired, throw them out.
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About the Author
Cheryl Luptowski is the Public Information Officer/Home Safety Expert for NSF International, an independent public health and safety organization that certifies products and writes standards in the areas of dietary supplement safety, consumer products, toys, drinking water, and sustainability. Cheryl has been interviewed as a home expert in national print, online and radio and has authored many articles and fact sheets with tips for healthier living. She is the face behind “Ask NSF,” NSF’s online Q & A portal and she chairs the NSF Consumer Advisory Panel.
1FDA inspectors find serious problems among supplement makers (2012). Retrieved on July 12, 2012, from