Do you ever wonder where your supplements come from? I mean, how ironic would it be if your liver support supplement had pesticides in it? Or if the supplement you recommended to your friend for her gut health contained gluten and added sugars? If you're taking something for the sake of your health, you should know the facts. But the way supplements are regulated can make it hard to find the facts you need.
I’ve done my research into supplement manufacturing processes and regulations, but I wanted to go further, to the place where my supplements are produced, so I boarded a plane and flew to Gaia Herbs organic farm and manufacturing facility to ask my most pressing questions. Back in New York, I met with Dr. Barry Ritz, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at Atrium Innovations and a board member of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, and Dr. Robert Graham, a Harvard-trained physician board certified in both internal and integrative medicine, to get their take on supplements and facts we should all know.
Here are the questions I asked and the answers I got. They’re the questions you’ll want to be able to answer about your supplement.
1. Do you know how your supplement is regulated?
Despite what many people think and say, the supplement industry is regulated—by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to be exact. It's just done in a strange way. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) is the law that set the standard for supplement regulations and made it so that they're regulated as foods instead of drugs. And although that may seem strange, when it was put to a vote, the public made it clear that they didn't want regulations that would require a doctor to be involved in the supplement process.
So essentially, the FDA sets basic good manufacturing practices (GMPs) that require companies to identify the raw materials in their supplements and test for things like purity and potency and keep detailed batch records. All supplement companies must register with the FDA. However, these are basic regulations, so most manufacturers will go way above and beyond these GMPs. In that case, they declare their own standards, and the FDA simply makes sure that they follow them—meaning they check in every couple of years unless there's a complaint, recall, or other issue to investigate. This also means that when you buy a supplement, you're putting your trust (and your health) in the hands of a company that controls its own sourcing, manufacturing, quality control, and distribution. A company that is also, understandably, trying to make money.
2. What can they tell you about their farming practices?
Many of us know where our food comes from; we know our oranges are from Florida, our meat is from a local farm. Can you say the same for your supplements? Sourcing is a big deal. Where are the plants grown? Are they grown organically? Do they pay the farmers minimum wage or higher? Make sure the farms you get your supplements from align with your personal values. Gaia allows you to track down the specific farm your supplement came from—even providing photos and information about the farm. Obviously not every company can do this, but if you get on the phone with them they should be able to tell you the basics about their sourcing standards and processes.
3. Do they encourage working with a health care professional?
You don't have to get a prescription or go to the pharmacy to take a supplement, but that doesn't mean supplements are always safe. There are interactions, dosage information, and contraindications that you should definitely be aware of—especially if you have a chronic health condition of some kind or are taking medications. A great supplement company will encourage you to talk to and work with your health care provider. In fact, some companies only sell through health care providers and don't advertise or market to the public—forgoing that business to encourage consumers to consult a professional. But regardless of where you buy your supplement, a great integrative or functional medicine doctor will be well-versed in current research, safety concerns, and will help you streamline the whole process.
4. Are they investing their money and time in research?
Is your supplement company affiliated with a research facility, university, or medical school? Are they trying to further the knowledge on the natural products they're selling? Maybe the company is small and can't invest in research, but if it's a larger company it would be nice to know that they value science enough to invest in it.
5. Are you taking the most bioavailable form and the correct dose?
Say you've decided to start supplementing with vitamin D, so you start researching and are immediately bombarded by endless options: vitamin D2, D3, D3 with K2 or E or A—and what the hell is 1 alpha-hydroxyvitamin D? Not to mention, every bottle seems to have a different dosage, which matters because your needs will change depending on your specific condition or level of deficiency. This is one more reason to find a doctor who knows supplements. If you do go it alone, make sure you do your research and get your information from a reliable resource; as a general rule, the more specific the ingredients list is on the bottle, the better. This will allow you to know what form the vitamin or mineral is in (for example, magnesium as magnesium citrate or glycinate). And according to Dr. Graham, make sure you let your doctor know what you're taking because supplements can have both positive and negative effects. Disclosure is everything.
6. Do you know what (all) the ingredients are?
It may be surprising to learn that some nasty ingredients—like chemicals, artificial colors, and sweeteners—can easily find their way into your supplement. These ingredients are not there for your health but instead are aimed to reduce cost or ease the burden of manufacturing. Read your supplement label with the same care you would apply to evaluating a food label. Do some detective work and look for supplements free from wheat, gluten, egg, peanuts, coatings, shellacs, GMOs, magnesium stearate, trans fats, hydrogenated oils; artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners; high-fructose corn syrup, MSG, propylene glycol, BHT, BHA, talc; or other unnecessary binders, fillers, and preservatives. For example, Pure Encapsulations—an Atrium Innovation supplement brand—clearly states their commitment to being free of these ingredients, which makes your detective work a whole lot easier.
7. Do they get a third-party certification?
A third-party certification is when the company has an independent organization evaluate their product for quality and safety. Normally a supplement will have an NSF sticker directly on the label or product literature. Keep in mind that these certifications are expensive and would be difficult for a smaller company to obtain, but for larger companies an NSF sticker is a great indicator that they're going above and beyond the standard GMPs. Don't see any stickers? Dr. Graham often recommends that his patients check out the Consumer Lab website, which independently tests different supplements for quality and then gives them a pass-or-fail score—a valuable resource for patients looking to save some money but still get a good-quality supplement.
8. When does your supplement expire, and do you know how to store it?
The potency (and thus efficacy) of many supplements decreases over time, but not all supplements have an expiration date. Look for one that does because that means the potency is guaranteed until that date. Also, be sure to follow instructions stated on the package for proper storage and suggested use so that you get the most out of your purchase.
So take a second to ask yourself this question: Do you really know where your supplements come from? And I don’t just mean where they’re manufactured, but where they’re grown, how they’re prepared, and what they're processed with? Many of us are super-educated about where our food comes from—so let’s start asking the same questions about our supplements. Because once you think about it, you realize there are A LOT of questions to ask—and many of them are going unanswered right now.
On a final note, it's important to remember that taking a supplement isn't an excuse to live an unhealthy lifestyle. The goal isn't to replace a pharmaceutical pill with a supplement capsule—natural though it may be—while ignoring things like food, self-care, and exercise. According to Dr. Graham, "Supplements are supposed to do just that: supplement a nutrient deficiency. You shouldn't eat a supplement like you would a food. Food first is what really matters."
If you have more questions about supplements, you can check out these great resources:
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements
- ConsumerLab website
- Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute supplement reviews
- FDA Dietary Supplement and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA)
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health