This is Part -2 in our 4-part series on dietary supplements. This week we take a look at FDA regulations, certification, and other safety considerations.
If you’re going to take supplements, it’s important to know what to take and what’s safe. Dietary supplements aren’t regulated in the same way as prescriptions and food in the US but that doesn’t mean they’re innately unsafe. There are ways to find quality supplements including looking at the raw products used to create your vitamins, seeking certain third-party certifications, and making sure what you are looking at is safe for your unique needs (like other medications, supplements and medical history).
The world of supplements is very broad. Often athletic and sexual performance enhancers or weight loss related products (especially herbs) are the most likely to have issues, while nutrient-based supplements are sometimes more clearly regulated. Let’s discuss regulation, certification, and supplement safety so you can make more informed decisions.
The FDA is responsible for regulating supplements, but instead of products being tested prior to being sold, the companies that produce them are in charge of determining labeling accuracy and testing their ingredients. The burden of testing is on the company, not the FDA which creates problems with trust from consumers looking for safe, effective products.
The way supplements are regulated is because of a law established in 1994 called the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which prohibits manufacturers from making false label claims and from selling adulterated products. This prohibition sounds protective; however, it does allow structure/function claims, which are why you may see labeling such as “works to support metabolism” or “aids in circulatory health,” which sound good, but really only mean that an ingredient in the product may have a role in metabolism or vascular function, not that the supplement has any impact on those systems. Also, these claims are not tested or reviewed by the FDA. The only requirement is that structure/function claims are submitted to the FDA within 30 days from when the product is marketed with that verbiage. You can see that this allows many empty claims without much oversight making supplements hard to trust.
Additionally, the FDA is not allowed to review safety or efficacy information prior to the supplement being marketed and sold. This puts a lot of the burden on the consumer – you – to assess what you are buying.
Because of federal regulation laws, it can be helpful to look for third party testing certifications to assess the quality of supplements for yourself. This means that a company invests in having an external certifier come to their facility and test their products for accuracy and safety.
Three reputable certifications that are useful to look out for when buying supplements include:
1. USP Dietary Supplement Verification Program: a scientific nonprofit which sets standards for ingredients, strength, quality and purity.
2. NSF: an independent product testing agency that verifies the product is free from contaminants, was manufactured safely and contains the ingredients matching the label. NSF sport is a branch dedicated to ensuring products are: free of contaminants, masking agents and banned substances, and is a good label to look for in sports specific products.
3. Consumer Labs (CL): regularly tests and evaluates products, the Consumer Labs website, ConsumerLab.com also has detailed information about uses, safety, interactions and what the best brand of different supplements are according to their research.
Each of these certifications includes a seal on the supplement label to indicate that it has met the standard of the testing agency. These certifications can be helpful in finding quality products and are a great place to start when assessing the right brand for you.
Additional considerations that you should consider when you’re deciding which supplements to buy start with the form of raw product. For example, vitamin A could be listed as retinyl acetate or retinyl palmitate, beta-carotene, or a combination. B vitamins can be methylated or non-methylated. Minerals come in different forms such as: magnesium citrate, magnesium bisglycinate, magnesium orotate, or magnesium oxide for example. The difference in these forms of magnesium is the substance it’s bound to, allowing the mineral to be absorbed and used within the body. Deciding which form to take can vary depending on the purpose of the supplement and the price per dose you are looking for.
Herbs can be made from different species of the plant and different parts of the plant (stems, root, leaves, seeds, etc) which may impact how they work in the body. For example, echinacea has three different species that are used in supplements and can be made from the root, leaves, and/or flowers which will all affect the final product and its effect on your health. You should also consider standardized dosing. How much will you need to achieve the health benefits you’re seeking? Ultimately, you want to be sure that you’re getting the type of nutrient in the right amount that’s of high quality and evidence-based to help support your health.
When you have decided to take a certain dietary supplement, it’s worth doing some research to find the best form to take, the brand that is safe and effective, and to be sure there are no interactions with other medicines you are taking. Double checking with your doctor and discussing with a registered dietitian nutritionist is always a good idea for your safety.
Dietary Supplements. U.S. Food and Drug Administration website, https://www.fda.gov/food/dietary-supplements. Published 2019. Accessed March 4, 2022. Using Dietary Supplements Wisely. National Center for Complementary and Integrative health website. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/using-dietary-supplements-wisely. Published 2018. Accessed March 4, 2022. Third Party Certifications for Supplements. Fullscript website. https://fullscript.com/blog/third-party-certifications?utm_source=Adwords&utm_medium=PaidSearch&utm_campaign=DSA_Homepage&gclid=CjwKCAiAlfqOBhAeEiwAYi43F2MyE9fyoWbqNi5gVZCiaNVqmJjSJs0_uv5zRuqbYXUrQgQt4D2pnRoC4VcQAvD_BwE. Published 2021. Accessed March 4, 2022.