Supplementation is popular for everything from muscle gain to hair and nail growth. But did you know that supplements are not actively regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration?
What is a supplement?
A supplement is any product that has a “Supplement Facts” label rather than a “Nutrition Facts” label. This can include multivitamins and pill supplements but also protein powders, herbs, probiotics, teas, oils, and other food-like products.
By FDA standards, supplements are preemptively considered safe until proven unsafe. Where food and pharmaceuticals have to meet rigorous standards in order to be proven safe for public consumption, supplements are only taken off the market if adverse events occur.
Why is regulation important?
Lack of regulation before market leads to an enormous loophole in product quality. Products can and have been shown to manipulate consumers by putting ingredients on the Supplements Label that are not actually in the product. A product stating it contains 500 mg of calcium does not, by any law or standard, have to include 500 mg calcium. Many supplement manufacturers have incentive to put less in their product than advertised in order to save money.
The quality of supplement ingredients also does not have to be traced or regulated, so there is limited ability to guarantee freshness or that the ingredients included contain active properties. Supplement manufacturers may also put other “filler” ingredients into their product that are not, and do not have to be, listed on their label. They are also not required to test for contamination.
Some supplements carry a certified organic label; while this means that any of the ingredients they use meet standards of organic products, this has no bearing on whether what is listed on the label is in the product you consume.
For consumers, this means potentially wasting anywhere from $10 to $50 on a product that promises to help with muscle gain or hair and nail growth, when the product quality may be deeply compromised.
What can we do to protect ourselves?
The number one way to make sure the supplements you purchase are of a high quality is to look for a third-party certification statement. For supplement companies wishing to gain consumer trust and elevate the quality of their product, they will hire an independent laboratory to test their products. This testing can verify that what is stated on the label is in the product.
Supplements that have undergone this testing are able to bear the logo of that third-party testing company. The most well-recognized is the U.S. Pharmacopia or “USP” seal of certification. The Nature Made brand has the majority of their products verified by USP and can be assumed to be safe and containing what the label states they contain.
Two other popular verification companies are NSF International (“NSF”) and Consumer Lab (their symbol looks like a science beaker.) Of note, products by GNC and the Vitamin Shoppe do not appear to utilize third party verification.
Supplements can cost a lot of money; take every possible precaution to make sure that the money you’re putting down is going toward what you think it is. Find brands that utilize third party certifications and stick to them! If your supplement of choice doesn’t seem to have a brand that uses a third-party verifier, read a little bit more about the supplement. More digging may show that the supplement doesn’t have any real scientific evidence to do what it claims to do in the first place.