So, last night you had popcorn and a Dr. Pepper for dinner.

Not exactly the most balanced meal, but you were hungry, it was too hot to fire up the oven, popcorn has…well, at least fiber, right? Could be worse.

Could also be better. But we get it: not every meal is going to be as nutritious as we might hope. And that’s OK. But chronically falling short of nutritional guidelines really isn’t great for your health, and many adults (particularly older women) don’t get enough of some pretty important nutrients.

So maybe you decide to take supplements, just to ensure you’re getting enough of everything you need.

During your weekly grocery shop, you venture into the “vitamins” aisle, take one look at the groaning shelves stocked to bursting with a million options, and back right out again, determined to eat more kale.

So let’s talk about how to buy supplements.

In this blog, we’re not going to discuss which nutrients you need (but you’re getting enough magnesium, right?). For now, we’re more concerned with how you choose supplements that are safe and effective.

Why is supplement purchase a problem?

In the US, supplements are a multi-billion dollar industry. But because the government considers supplements to be more like food than like medicine, the regulation of supplements is far less rigorous than on drugs.  

Why does it matter? Because safety. According to the American Cancer Society, drugs must prove they are safe before they can go on the market – via trials under well-controlled conditions. Supplements are considered “safe” until someone proves the supplement has caused harm.

With so much potential profit and so little regulation, it’s a great opportunity for the unscrupulous to prey on consumers, offering “supplements” that may do nothing – or may cause more problems than they solve.

Potential risks include:

  1. Misleading labeling. A study done in 2013 found that among the 44 herbal supplements tested, less than half contained the herb claimed on the label.
  2. Because the supplements aren’t checked by 3rd parties, unscrupulous providers may use fillers or allow contaminants into the supplements.
  3. “Extra ingredients.” In order for their “supplement” to meet the company’s claims, some have added medications such as steroids or other drugs. These are not generally listed and can cause dangerous interactions or carry health risks of their own.
  4. “New ingredients.” Untested ingredients have found their way into supplements, causing — in the case of DMAA — several deaths.
  5. Just because something is natural doesn’t make it safe. (Box jellyfish are “natural” too, but you wouldn’t give one to your kids as a pet.) Some herbs can interact with medications, either making them less effective or putting your health at risk. If an ingredient isn’t listed, or risks aren’t added to the label, you could unknowingly put yourself in danger.

How do we choose safe supplements?

Dr. Wendy EllisTo figure out how to find credible sources among the vast quantities of supplement providers, we turned to Dr. Wendy Ellis, Naturopathic Physician and educator.

Want safe supplements? First, says Dr. Wendy, check that the supplement’s manufacturer followed the cGMPCurrent Good Manufacturing Processes — and that they’ve been certified via a third party audit. You should see an endorsement like this one on the supplement label.

The cGMP are set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are "a set of requirements that ensure the quality and safety, including the testing, manufacturing, preparation, storage, and other quality assurance procedures. This ensures that the dietary supplement is packaged and labeled as specified in the master manufacturing record."

Next, Dr. Wendy says, be sure the company has and follows specifications for all raw material and finished products. Meaning, they know where their ingredients come from and how they’ve been handled. They should be able and willing to provide documentation of this on request.

Third, be sure the manufacturer tests regularly for potency and to ensure against contaminants. These include solvents used in manufacture, heavy metals or pesticides that can be picked up in when ingredients are being grown, and pesticides and molds, as herbs and other food products can be at high risk for these.

Finally, the manufacturer should be able to guarantee that the product will remain safely stable and potent throughout its shelf-life.

This article from Livestrong breaks down several reports and may help you determine some good supplement manufacturers.  

Obviously, it’s tough to get all this information on the label, so you may have to call the manufacturer or do some research on your own. But it’s worth it to be certain your supplements are safe and of good quality.

The health care world is still undecided about the effectiveness of supplements, but from our own experience and those of the women we work with, we know many supplements have had life changing (and menopause surviving) benefits. If you do decide to add to your diet with supplements, please do so safely, and check with your doctor to be sure supplements won’t interact with your medications.

Do you take supplements to complete your nutrition? How do you choose the ones you take? We'd love to learn more from you, so please comment below or join in the discussion on our community forums!