Have you ever walked into a store looking for vitamins or supplements only to be completely overwhelmed by the choices? Even if you go in knowing what you need, there are often multiple brands of the same thing to choose from. It can be a confusing process to navigate, but before you resort to “eeny meeny miny moe,” let us give you some guidelines to help you make smart choices for you and your family. It is important to be informed because quality largely affects the safety and efficacy of dietary supplements.
Find Pharmaceutical Grade Supplements if your Budget Allows
Many over-the-counter brands consist of only 10% raw materials with the other 90% consisting of fillers, binders, etc. On the other hand, pharmaceutical grade supplements, sometimes referred to as nutraceuticals, consist of at least 99% raw materials. These are the gold standard of the supplement industry because the quality and quantity are unmatched. These brands are typically pricier than over-the-counter brands, but the investment is well worth it. Where can you find these brands? Well, the Alliance for Natural Health has put together a list of some of the top brands recommended by integrative medicine practitioners, most of which would fall under the category of pharmaceutical grade. This list, though not comprehensive, is a good starting place.
Often, these companies work directly with practitioners and are therefore only available through them. Because the products have such high potency, they want to ensure that they are applied correctly and safely. However, some of these products may be available in stores or online. Practitioners may even use their own supplement brand. For example, Dr. Holtorf has developed many of his own formulas. This exclusive brand of supplements is called Holtraceuticals. This is a unique advantage since formulations are based on research and clinical outcomes that relate directly to the specific health conditions treated at Holtorf Medical Group.
Look for the Cheapest Supplements you can Find – and Then Don’t Buy Them
As a general rule, the saying “you get what you pay for” applies to dietary supplements. You might be thinking that you just can’t afford the top of the line supplements. But buying the cheapest supplements may actually do more harm than good, considering the low potency and high probability of contamination. If finances are an issue, you may want to have a health care practitioner help you to prioritize which supplements would be most beneficial for you so that you can buy a few good quality ones rather than a lot of poor quality ones.
Shop at Local Health Food Stores or Other Specialty Stores
If you do choose to buy over-the-counter, it’s generally a better idea to buy from local health food stores or specialty stores (ie. Vitamin Shoppe, Whole Foods) than it is to buy from superstores or drug stores. The employees are usually more knowledgeable about supplements and the stores themselves are typically more savvy and selective when choosing products to stock the shelves. Also, in the past few years, reports surfaced about supplements sold by a few of the most well-known stores including Wal-Mart, Target, GNC, and Walgreens. A large percentage of the supplements on their shelves had contaminants or did not contain what they said they contained. This was especially true for herbal products. Keep in mind this is a general recommendation and that there may be acceptable supplements at these stores (and there may be unacceptable ones at the specialty stores). That being said, it is advisable to research individual products before making a decision.
Before Shopping, Do your Own Research on Companies and Ingredients
It is always a good idea to talk to a healthcare provider before deciding on a supplement regimen. If you are unable to do that, make sure you first research the nutrients, herbs, etc. that you are interested in supplementing with. The University of Maryland Medical Center website and the Natural Medicines website (formerly known as the Natural Standard and Natural Medicines Comprehensive Network) are both great resources for evaluating the level of evidence between certain herbs and other dietary supplements. The latter requires a small monthly subscription fee. You can also search research studies directly by going to sites like PubMed and The Cochrane Collaboration/The Cochrane Consumer Network.
When researching individual companies and products, a good place to start is the Consumer Labs website. This is an independent company that tests off-the-shelf supplements and reports its findings on safety, potency, etc. If you are in the store, look for products with the Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) symbol or certifications from the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) or the NSF International Public Health and Safety Company. If a product says it is “3rd party tested” that is also a good sign. You may have to do a bit more detective work when it comes to network marketing companies. Some of them have solid research and credentialed individuals backing their products (while others do not), but this information is often not listed on their websites.
Read Labels Carefully
Don’t forget to read all labels thoroughly before purchasing, to ensure that there are no surprises. Sometimes there is more than you bargained for in that little bottle! Watch out for hidden allergens like gluten, dairy, or yeast. These could present a problem for sensitive individuals. Also watch out for unnecessary fillers or binders like hydrogenated oils or artificial dyes.
Use caution when shopping online
Sometimes buying online can be cost effective and give you access to high quality brands and even certain practitioner brands that you may not have available to you locally. However, always remember to check expiration dates when you receive your supplements. If it is coming from a 3rd party distributor, you don’t know how long it has been on their shelves. There is also no guarantee that distributors store the supplements properly. For example, some nutrients are heat sensitive and need to be stored at room temperature or even refrigerated. It’s also a good idea to compare the formula’s ingredients to the one on the company’s website. Sometimes formulations change in the time between when it gets into a distributor’s hand and when you purchase it.
In summary, it is always the best choice to purchase pharmaceutical-grade nutraceuticals directly through your healthcare practitioner or another trusted source whenever possible. If finances are an issue, consider pairing down your supplement regimen (or looking for combination formulas), rather than switching to low-quality products. When buying over-the-counter, do your research on both ingredients and companies. When buying online, follow the same standards with the addition of checking expiration dates and making sure the product is the most up-to-date formulation the company has to offer. Follow these steps and you’ll be sure to feel like a “supplement connoisseur” the next time you saunter into the health food store.