Supplements are all the craze in the health world these days. Blogs are telling you to take this for heart health, another thing for your brain, and yet something else entirely for your metabolism. And when you’re a person who is willing to try anything for better health and wellness, it can be tempting to hop immediately on the internet and order a supplement.
But like every other industry (especially for things you put in your body), when it comes to the supplement world, quality is everything. We’ve talked about how to read and understand a supplement facts label, which is just as important (if not more so) than being able to decipher nutrition labels. But if you want to know if your supplement is pure, keep reading because there is more than what meets the eye.
I want to explain a little bit about the history of supplement regulation and why it’s so important to do your research. I’ll also share some of my top tips to help you pick out quality supplements. I want you to be confident in your supplement choice. You should get what you pay for. And most importantly, that you know what you are putting in your body is pure.
Why is Supplement Purity Important?
Supplements are often used to manage illness symptoms and are often even prescribed by functional medicine doctors, naturopaths, and Chinese medicine practitioners. That’s because they work! But these recommendations can also contain powerful herbs and large doses of vitamins or other compounds. This is why it is crucial to make sure the amounts on a supplement facts label are accurate, and the sources are pure.
The importance of purity in supplements dates way back to the 1940s in America when manufacturers saw an opportunity to make some cash at consumers’ expense. We all know that story, right? Companies started selling vitamins and making all sorts of ridiculous claims about vitamins and putting incredibly large (potentially dangerous) doses in their supplements and selling them to the public (1). Remember that even up until the 1920s, coca-cola was sold as a medicine and had cocaine in it!
This marks the time when the FDA realized they needed to do something to protect consumers, so they set up supplement standards known as the recommended daily allowance and % daily value of a nutrient. These new standards meant more rules and expense, so companies fought back hard against this and supplements continued to be sold unregulated.
It wasn’t until 1989 when things got out of control: when a supplement called tryptophan was found to be a contributing factor in over 1500 deaths (1). They eventually concluded this was because of an issue with manufacturing, and so the FDA tried to crack down hard by taking control over supplements.
The FDA didn’t get as much control over the supplement world as they would have liked. But in 1994, a law was passed stating that the FDA could take legal action against anyone making false claims or inaccurately reporting information (2).
Though this sounds all good, there is still a lot of room for error. Have you ever heard the saying, “it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission”? Under the DHSEA act, the FDA can only really take action against a company after the fact. This leaves it up to companies to be truthful, meaning supplement companies can still get away without telling the whole truth (2).
How Are Supplements Regulated?
The FDA does manage the manufacturing process of supplements, just like with food items. The GMP seal is essential to establish that the supplement was made in safe conditions. And as I said earlier, the FDA can also take action against a supplement proved to be dangerous. There is even a section on their website where consumers can report adverse reactions to a vitamin or supplement. But this still leaves it up to the consumer to keep tabs on supplements, and there is a lot of criticism saying that there is not enough follow up by the FDA on these claims.
So who regulates supplement facts labels? Outside of assuring good manufacturing practices, no one does. This is why you need to take it into your own hands when it comes to making sure your vitamins and supplements are pure. This is also why 3rd party verifications have been established to further test and evaluate your supplement facts labels.
There are four major 3rd parties that can certify supplements: The United States Pharmacopeia, The Natural Products Association, NSF International and Consumer Lab.Com (3). These organizations test supplement facts labels in a few different ways.
Depending on the organization, supplements can be tested for:
- The correct quantity and % daily value of ingredients
- Good manufacturing practices and safety standards
- How well a capsule or tablet disintegrates (to make sure it can dissolve in the body)
- Correct representation of the supplement facts labels and no outrageous medical claims
- Toxins and other contaminants
Free of toxins or other contaminants are a critical piece of the certification. Effects of these impurities can result in illnesses ranging from mild sickness like a tummy ache to severe liver damage.
Imagine that you are taking something to help support your liver that is also laden with pesticides and other contaminants. Those toxins are placing a significant burden on your liver and would defeat the entire purpose of taking a supplement in the first place. Then there are things like molds or fungus, which some people with compromised immunity or allergies (food allergies as well) can be susceptible to.
Here Are My Top Tips for Checking Supplement Purity
Supplement purity is determined by full-disclosure of ingredients, free of contaminants and toxins, and safe manufacturing methods.
Read the Ingredients
The best method for checking a supplement for purity is to thoroughly read the supplement facts label and understand what the ingredients mean. Misrepresented information about ingredients is the easiest way that a company can fool you and yet still be meeting the requirements of the FDA.
For example: always look a little deeper into “proprietary blends” or “proprietary formulas.” This allows a company to protect its recipe but also be vague on what the formula or blend is. It’s a loop-hole in supplement facts labels— very similar to “fragrance” on your products list.
Same goes for products like protein powders that make bold claims about how much protein is in it. If soy isolate is the first ingredient, sugar is the second, and then maybe way down at the end they include whey or a proprietary blend of amino acids, it’s not a very good supplement.
Even when it comes to vitamins, make sure the “other ingredients” section is free of added sugar, corn syrup, and other processed ingredients. No one wants a bunch of added sugar with their multi-vitamin!
Do your Research
These days research is everything, and we all have to take responsibility for our health and wellness. This is why I’m so passionate about sharing information like this on the blog. I want you to be informed!
Say you read that a certain supplement or vitamin is good for heart health, don’t buy the first (and cheapest) one you find on amazon. Dig a little deeper and try to find out about the company you’re buying from. What’s their story? Do you trust them and their values? We stand behind the supplements we have on our online store. Some companies will make up a business and market like crazy to sell supplements but have no real knowledge to back it up. Trust your instinct on this one. If a company looks like a scam, it probably is.
Besides learning about the company itself, another side of the research aspect is reading up on the herb or vitamin. Check out studies or well-researched blogs about the effectiveness of an herb or vitamin. Then go a little further to determine the variations and things to watch out for.
Is it a cod liver or krill oil? Make sure that it hasn’t been processed using high heat that could make it go rancid. Or look to see that it’s free from toxic heavy metals. In a prenatal vitamin, you might want to find one that has L-methylfolate, which is generally considered a safer and more bioavailable form of folic acid.
Look for 3rd Party Quality Assurance
Make sure there is a GMP stamp of approval on the supplement facts label. That means the FDA has regulated and approved of the manufacturing processes. But remember that the FDA doesn’t thoroughly test ingredients in supplements prior to them being released.
And here’s a not so great fact. One study found that in 55 different brands of vitamin D supplements, there was a considerable discrepancy between what was listed on the label and what was really in it, anywhere from 9%-46% (4).
That’s why these 3rd parties exist. These can give you some peace of mind when it comes to knowing that your supplement facts label is accurate and that the ingredients are pure and free of contaminants. Remember to check for NSF or USP, two of the more reputable 3rd party certifications.
Make Sure the Dose Is Therapeutic
Again, knowing how to understand and decipher a supplement facts label can be super helpful. Say you find a supplement that has a ton of stuff thrown in there, in tiny amounts, most likely that’s not going to make a difference to your health. Different nutrients require different dosages to be effective. Otherwise, it’s just marketing.
People who are vegan or vegetarian may require vitamin B12 supplements to make up for what they lack in their diets since B12 only comes from animal products. But if they are taking one that only says 20 or 50 % daily value on the supplement facts label, then it’s just not enough.
So reading the vitamin label, deciphering the quantity and then doing a little research about that will help you determine if your supplement is pure and effective.
Other supplements like nootropics also come to mind. A company could be selling a supplement that is 90% caffeine and very little of another brain booster like Gingko Biloba. So read your labels and know how much you need for it to be effective.
Look For Pharmaceutical Grade Supplements
Pharmaceutical grade supplements are usually sold by licensed care providers like functional medicine doctors or Chinese medicine practitioners (5). These are more rigorously tested to meet requirements about purity and bioavailability. They are also often a mix of one or more synergistic nutrients— which is just a fancy word for saying they can be more effective when paired up together! What we want is essential nutrients.
The other benefit of pharmaceutical grade supplements is that because your healthcare provider will be recommending them, you’re more likely to discuss any contraindications to make sure nothing you’re taking will interfere with other medications.
Once you find the right supplement, you don’t necessarily have to keep going back to the care provider. You can then look for the same brand online and order it straight to your door.
The next step down is nutritional or cosmetic grade. You’ll find these smaller brands at health food stores, but as far as purity goes, unless they meet some of the other requirements on this list, it’s a gamble! If you’re curious about what health experts recommend, check out this article.
As you can see, when it comes to understanding a supplement facts label, there is a lot to know! And just like with home and beauty products or food, purity is key! Living a non-toxic lifestyle requires a little research, awareness, and effort, but it’s possible!
I’d love to hear what you think about this. Do you have any recommendations for pure and effective supplements? What about a hack to deciphering supplement facts labels? Drop a comment below!
Since writing this article, we’ve formulated a pure supplements line that is the best on the market. Check out our Superfood Supplements Collection to learn more.
- Pray, Steven (2017). “The FDA, Vitamins and the Dietary Supplement Industry.” Retrieved from: https://www.uspharmacist.com/article/the-fda-vitamins-and-the-dietary-supplement-industry
- Nature Made (2019). “How Supplements are Regulated.” Retrieved from: http://www.naturemade.com/about-nature-made/accountability/how-supplements-are-regulated#CVoboggqkB7uHkWY.97
- Dr. Oz (2019). “Dietary Supplement Quality: A Complex Situation.” Retrieved from: https://www.doctoroz.com/article/dietary-supplement-quality
- Alban, Dean (2013). “Can You Trust Your Supplements?” Retrieved from: https://www.naturalnewsblogs.com/can-you-trust-your-supplements-9-ways-to-know-for-sure/
- Pure Health MD (2019). “Determining Supplement Quality.” Retrieved from: https://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/food-nutrition/vitamin-supplements/determining-supplement-quality.htm