Tips to be Supplement Savvy

What to know and what you can do before you buy


Supplement Use in the United States

Do you take supplements? Do you know someone that does? The answer to both of those questions is probably a resounding yes.  

Among U.S. adults in 2020, 61% of people aged 18-34, 74% of people 35-54, and 81% of people 55 years and older take supplements. With over 60% of the population consuming supplements, the food supplement industry was worth over 42 billion dollars in 2019. The average American spends $56 a month on supplements.  

The most popular supplement categories consumed are vitamins and minerals, herbals and botanicals, sports nutrition and weight management supplements, and specialty supplements such as fish oil or those specific to a condition such as arthritis or prenatal vitamins.

The supplement industry began as a way to enhance or supplement diets with essential nutrients that weren’t always available in a community. However, as indicated above, the use of supplements has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry. Current lifestyle trends have reached a frenetic pace that often makes eating healthy difficult. As a dietitian, I could write telling you to eat more fruits and vegetables, and then most of us wouldn’t need to take supplements, and we would all save a lot of money. However, in reality, I recognize that is unlikely to happen. Since 6 out of 10 people are taking a supplement (myself included), here are six things you need to know about supplement safety and efficacy

Six things you should know about supplement safety and efficacy

  • Supplements are under the umbrella of the FDA, but they do not have the same stringent guidelines as medications. 
        • What this means: just because it is on the market doesn’t mean it will help you.  
  • The supplement industry is very loosely regulated. Supplement manufacturers are not required to show their product works before it is on a shelf. 
        • What this means: the supplement may have no known positive outcomes if taken regularly. 
  • Supplements do not need approval by the FDA for efficacy before being marketed to the public. 
        • What this means: the advertised effects of the supplement may not be valid. 
  • Supplements do not need ingredient authenticity before being placed on a shelf. They are manufactured assuming a Good Manufacturing Principles (GMP) ethos.  
        • What this means: The ingredients should not cause harm, but there is no guarantee. 
  • Supplements must have the following claim on the packaging: “This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” 
        • What this means: This is the government’s way of excusing themselves of any wrongdoing that may occur as a result of supplement use. 
  • All dietary supplements must have a standard label (similar to the nutrition facts labels on food) known as the ‘Supplements Facts’ label. 
        • What this means: you can easily compare and contrast supplements between brands to find the best one for you. 

Questions to consider before buying a supplement

So, in light of some of these regulatory (or lack of regulatory) facts about supplements, what can you do.  

First, you should visit a health care provider to determine if you may need a supplement. Based on a medical visit and some blood work, your doctor can help you decide whether you need a supplement. 

Evaluate the benefits of a specific supplement for YOU! Questions to ask yourself include: 

1.) Does the supplement meet your needs? As an example, does it have the ingredients that you want? i.e.) does a calcium pill contain the right kind of calcium for absorption? 

2.) Are the ingredients safe for you? Will any of the ingredients interfere with the medication that you are taking? Considering the safety of supplement use with medication is especially true of herbal and botanical supplements.  

3.) Is the dose safe for you? Make sure only to take the amount recommended on the bottle. If you need more or less than the packaging suggests, find another brand with a different dosage. 

4.) Finally, cost. Can you afford to take the desired supplement for the correct amount of time to see any benefit? Can you afford to continue using the supplement long-term? It often takes 6-8 weeks of consistent supplement use to see any effects. Long-term use of a supplement for several months or years allows for the best results. 

Independent supplement quality testing

There are a few independent supplement verification programs that manufacturers can submit their supplements to for testing. The testing does not check for efficacy; however, an NSFUSP, or Consumer Lab verified emblem on a label (as seen in the graphics below) indicates the supplement is tested for ingredient quality and quantity. 

What this means: the ingredients stated on the label are present in the product, and tests have shown no traces of banned, illegal, or known dangerous substances in the supplement ingredients. If a manufacturer has submitted a supplement for testing, look for one of the three labels below somewhere on your supplement packaging.

In summary

The supplement industry continues to grow as we become more health-conscious. Next time you consider a supplement, evaluate the information above and use it to make a more informed and knowledgeable decision about your future supplement purchases. Have a question about your supplement? Head to my website and schedule your free 30-minute consult to get your questions answered. 

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