The supplement industry is a $40 billion per year industry. It has grown exponentially over the last 30 years, with some estimates showing 4,000 different supplements on the US market in the mid-1990s, to at least 75,000 in 2016.1
Even a couple years ago big companies like Costco had lawsuits against them for their supplements not containing what the labels said. This brings up questions of supplement quality and federal regulation of the supplement industry. Some supplements can cost quite a bit of money. And there is very little consumer protection when it comes to supplements. So, how can you know what you are buying is a quality product and what does quality mean when it comes to supplements? Some of you may even be asking, are supplements even worth it? Let’s dive in…
The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) was passed in 1994. However, due to a lack of federal support, it wasn’t fully rolled out until 2010. This law establishes good manufacturing practices, requirements for FDA approval for new dietary ingredients, and specific labeling requirements. The act is regulated by the FDA, the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Justice.
While the FDA does provide basic criteria for supplement quality, there is not yet a single, national consensus defining optimal supplement quality. A group called the Dietary Supplements Quality Collaborative (DSQC) is working to convene a diverse group of stakeholders to define a quality matrix to improve quality and safety standards across the entire industry. Participants include the United Natural Products Alliance, the Council for Responsible Nutrition, the Consumer Health Products Association, the American Botanical Council, the National Consumers League, the American Medical Association, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
I use the following criteria to determine whether or not a supplement is high quality or not:
√ Free of heavy metals
√ Sweetener free
√ Allergen free
√ GMO free
√ Well labeled with a “supplement facts” panel stating key ingredients, a list of other ingredients in order of predominance, net quantity of contents, directions for use, servings size, expiration date, and the name and place of manufacturer, packer, and distributor. There should also be a standard disclaimer stating that the product is not intended for prevention or treatment of disease.
√ Manufactured by a reputable company that is using the good manufacturing practices as set by the DSHEA. A reputable company is a member of key industry organizations, has a robust quality assurance staff, and compliant with the basics of the DSHEA. Other considerations include whether or not the company has post-market monitoring with well-established procedures for handling adverse events reports, whether or not the company can provide details about its raw material verification processes, and whether or not the brand invests in research.
√ Not making any fraudulent or inappropriate claims. By law, supplement brands cannot claim that their products prevent, treat, or ameliorate diseases, health conditions, or surrogate disease markers – even if there is solid evidence that they do. Supplement brands may cast their products in terms of supporting healthy anatomy, improving physiologic functions, or providing specific nutrient levels.
√ Made with quality, whole food ingredients. Like grapes for wine, the quality of ingredients is affected by growing conditions, seasonal variation, pest management, and extraction techniques.
√ Not owned by a questionable parent company. For example, did you know that a formerly reputable company, and one with products I used to use in my recommendations and in my own routine, Pure Encapsulations, is now owned by Nestle?!?
“Producing high quality supplements requires a tremendous amount of attention, from beginning to end,” says Russell Jaffe, MD, PhD, a veteran immunologist and chemist, who did research at the National Institutes of Health, prior to founding Perque Integrative Health, a practitioner-focused nutraceutical company. “I am a doctor, not just a scientist and entrepreneur. I need to set high standards for safe ingredients.”
The reality is, quality costs, Jaffe stresses.1
It’s great to know that there are people out there that are passionate about providing high-quality, real-food, safe supplements. It should be noted that while it can be more costly to produce a supplement that meets a higher-than-average standard of quality, supplements need not be egregiously expensive, and high price tags don’t always guarantee top quality. But it’s a good bet that people seeking bargain prices are less likely to get well-made, thoroughly tested vitamins and herbs. I recommend staying away from Amazon, Costco, and Super Supplements for your supplement needs.
When it comes to whether or not supplements are worth it, there is no easy way to answer that question because every single person has different nutrient needs.
Unfortunately, most of the food we are eating today isn’t as nutrient-rich as it used to be. According to biochemist, Donald Davis of the University of Texas, who has done rigorous analysis of USDA nutrient data, over the last 50 years, the amounts of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin and vitamin C in conventionally grown fresh fruits and vegetables have declined significantly.3 Similar trends have been discovered in the United Kingdom.
When there are nutrient deficiencies in our body, we can help bring the body back into balance by introducing concentrated amounts of the missing nutrients, or supplements. Supplements can help you to speed up the healing process, but doesn’t need to be forced on you.
Think of supplements like a bridge between where you are and where you want to go. Supplements can provide the missing nutrients and help you navigate out of a deficient state. However, this can also often be done with food, it just takes a lot longer.
If you have questions about the quality of your supplements, feel free to ask me. I am trained to offer nutrient dense recommendations and regularly educate myself on the quality of the supplements I recommend to my clients.
- Mayo Clinic on supplement quality: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WA2wPBT91Ac
- Holistic Primary Care’s Quality Counts: A Clinicians Guide to Supplement Quality, Fall 2017
- Mother Earth News, December 2011/January 2012: http://www.motherearthnews.com/sustainable-farming/nutrient-value-of-food-zm0z11zphe.aspx