How to find out if what you are buying is what you think you are buying
Probably like many of you, I don't love taking medication (while of course, still being grateful for its existence!). If there's a lifestyle change I can make instead of taking a daily pill, you better believe I'm going to give it a shot, whether that's sleeping off a cold instead of taking cold medicine or even trying to adapt my exercise habits and screen time to avoid taking sleeping pills. Partially it's my sensitivity to drug side effects, part of it is due to the high cost of medication, and just a bit is me not wanting to give my hard-earned cash to The Man. And I know I'm not alone: I hear from so many students and clients all the time that not being dependent on lifelong medications is one of their main motivators for changing their diets for good.
And this pill-popping aversion also extends to supplements. I'm not the type to load up on a bunch of vitamins or protein powders because they are "good for me." I want to know that I truly need the supplement and that I can't get what I need from a reasonable amount of food. This year I had to go on a couple of supplements, but was left a little confused and frustrated about which brands and types to buy. Which formulation is best? Is cost a good indicator of quality? Can you really trust review sites or endorsements by people who also sell supplements on their websites?
And the bigger question: in a relatively unregulated industry like nutritional supplements, how do you know that you are actually buying the thing you think you are buying?
So today I thought I would share with you my method of selecting legitimate supplements. It's by no means foolproof (and obviously not medical advice, duh) but since I spent the time researching for myself, I figured I'd share what I found for anyone in a similar situation.
How to Select and Shop for Supplements:
1. Record a 1-week food journal and consult a medical professional.
This step is a combo of self-investigation and professional help. Keeping a 1-week food journal where you record everything that you eat and when you eat it. This will help you see for yourself what your nutritional deficiencies might be. As humans, we tend to overestimate our good habits like diet and exercise. We think we behave so much healthier than we do! Taking a look at the hard data can be daunting--but also super helpful. If you can do the journal for 3-4 weeks that's even better, particularly if you are trying to figure out a specific health issue.
Next, when you see your doctor for your annual physical and do blood work, you can have the journal as a second piece of data for her. If your blood work shows that you are iron deficient, your doctor may have a totally different take if she sees you eat 3 servings of leafy greens a day versus if you only ate 3 spinach leaves that week or whether you eat meat or not.
If you are particularly interested in the mentality of Lifestyle Changes First, I've found it helpful to also see a practitioner of alternative medicine like a naturopath, a doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine or an Ayurvedic practitioner. Often these professionals have a more nuanced understanding of both diet and supplementation. They've been some of my best resources for selecting brands of supplements or for knowing more bioavailable forms of nutrients found in food. (For any Chicagoans who are curious, I see both an MD and a Naturopath at The Raby Institute for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern).
Many folks self-diagnose when it comes to taking supplements like protein powders or magnesium, but I feel strongly about seeking expert personalized advice on this one. Supplements can interact with other medications and herbs especially can also have strong side effects. Good advice that I've taken to heart is to treat any concentrated ingredient as medicine, even if it doesn't fit the cultural definition of "a pharmaceutical" like herbs and teas.
2. Ask/Try to address the deficiency through food.
This step is personal to me, because as a chef, food is always going to be my number one! The more we learn about nutrition, I feel that we discover how amazingly synergistic food is and that nutrients in isolation aren't always as effective as the whole food.
Often, I find time-pressed family physicians will go straight to supplementation when your blood work comes back, telling you to take a handful of different vitamins. Ask right away if you can address the deficiency through food (they may have a reason why you shouldn't or why it might not be helpful to you). Also ask them for specific serving sizes of particular foods to aim for each day. If they can't give you specific quantities of a food to eat but can give you grams or milligrams of the necessary nutrient, use an online calculator like MyFitnessPal to see the serving sizes you'd need to hit the recommended targets.
3. Research supplements via an independent testing database
Having two parents in the medical profession, I've long known that supplements like vitamins, minerals, and herbs are not regulated by the FDA. In talking to other professionals in the field (including a friend at a chemical company that sells the raw materials to supplement manufacturers), I honestly just got more confused. The supply chain for supplements can be long and cross continents, making it really an honor system for manufacturers and brands to make sure their sources are not contaminated and are the levels and quality that they expect.
In my research though, I came across two independent testing databases where consumers like us can look up popular supplements and see their rankings.
- Labdoor--Labdoor tests and ranks popular supplements on their modern-looking and easy-to-navigate site. They purchase supplements and test them independently in their lab to find the true contents. Then they assign a numerical score based on label accuracy, product purity, nutritional value, ingredient safety, and projected efficacy. You can click into each ranking to see further details of the scores to make a more educated judgment. Ex: a magnesium supplement might be dinged for accuracy if instead if it has 190mg of magnesium in the sampled product when it professes 200mg on the label. Labdoor's data is free to access without any kind of log in and they make money if you purchase any of the products through their links. They have many basic supplements covered, but don't have a huge variety, especially of herbs and spices like turmeric or ashwaganda.
- ConsumerLab--ConsumerLab has been around since 1999 and is kind of like Consumer Reports or Cook's Illustrated for supplements. You pay a subscription and get access to all their detailed reports and it has a good reputation in the industry. Since they don't sell supplements (unlikely most sources that evaluate them), I have faith in their integrity, although I don't personally pay for a subscription (yet). They also test some food products like olive oil so I may join out of curiosities sake soon.
One caveat about these sites is that while they can verify product formulations and safety, they don't evaluate whether the particular claims based on the vitamin or herb are legitimate. For this type of information, you have to consult nutritional research. Some consumer friendly sites I like for this are Mayo Clinic, which has articles and a drug and supplement database, and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health's herb fact sheets.
4. Buy from a trusted source.
The final step for selecting your supplements is to make sure to purchase them via a trusted source. And while I love buying everything from cookbooks to kitchen tools on Amazon, unfortunately Amazon is not one of the places that I buy supplements. There are certainly legitimate sellers on their but big multi-seller marketplaces like Amazon and eBay are notorious for counterfeiters in the supplement, cosmetic, and OTC drug industries. (One common "scam" is expiration dates being overwritten.) Even if you find a good brand via Labdoor or ConsumerLab, there's no guarantee that the actual product you buy from an independent seller it hasn't been meddled with or reached its expiration.
The top places I shop are stores that I trust to vet their supply chain like health food stores and locally Merz Apothecary and Alma, the supplement shop inside the Raby Institute. ConsumerLab publicly shares a list of recommended sites that they consider reputable retailers like Vitacost and eVitamins. That's great news considering online shopping does allow for more selection and often lower prices than retail locations. Since as consumers we have limited ways of vetting these products, it's necessary to trust the retailers we purchase from and hope that they do their due diligence when it comes to vetting the safety and integrity of their products and supply chain via various industry-recognized standards and certifications.
At the purchase point is also where I evaluate other attributes that are important to me like:
- food-based supplements via synthetic--I find these personally easier on my stomach and perhaps more easy for my body to assimilate.
- cost and quantity--I usually buy the smallest bottle possible to test it out and maximize freshness even if it's more cost-effective to get a bigger bottle.
It's not a perfect system, but I feel more comfortable doing a little vetting on "natural" medicines whereas before I would just pick up the cheapest bottle at Walgreens or spend 35 minutes in the supplement aisle. Hope you find it helpful as well!
Do you have any tips, trusted resources or recommended brands for supplement shopping? Share in the comments below.