Are you interested in taking supplements but have no idea where to buy them and what brands to trust? You are not alone! The supplement industry is highly unregulated and full of shenanigans, from fake products sold on Amazon to products not kept at the right temperature in the storage and shipping process, to products that do not contain what they say, and even worse contain things they DON’T say on the label. Eeek!
Yet some people (me 🙋🏽♀️ and perhaps you) know that the right supplements can be a health game-changer for certain people. There’s a myriad of issues to discuss and work through when it comes to supplements. This post is for those who want to know how to evaluate brands.
Do you always “get what you pay for?”
If supplements are more expensive, are they better? And are cheap ones always worse? Not necessarily! Sometimes expensive products are marketing hoaxes, and sometimes it’s because they are super effective and high-quality. Likewise, lower-priced supplements can be clean and effective, or they can be a contaminated disaster!
Yup. Since the supplement industry is extremely under-regulated, so you can easily buy things with:
- Ingredients that are not even listed, some of which may be allergens – such as ragweed in an herbal supplement.
- Additives and fillers that also may contain allergens, such as shells, eggs, gluten, cornstarch, and soy.
- Unhealthy levels of metals.
- Pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals.
- Bacteria and fungi
- Insects and their “debris.”
- Pharmaceutical medications have been found in some analyzed supplement samples.
Many raw ingredients come from countries that don’t have rigorous quality control. Many parties are involved in what you buy from the store or what gets delivered to your door. This includes the raw materials, which may come from countries that don’t have rigorous quality control. Then there’s the manufacturing process which may add unwanted fillers, not extract the effective components correctly, or use poor plastic containers that can leech unhealthy chemicals. Next comes storage and transportation – many ingredients and their containers can be damaged from exposure to heat or light. Think about the lack of regulation throughout all these channels!
So how to determine a good brand?
The only way to do this is to vet their quality control. In theory, you can look for the very basic certification from the FDA which is GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice). But the plot thickens, as any company can say they are GMP and there is absolutely NO regulation of this claim. So in a sense, it means nothing!
It’s up to the supplement manufacturer to prove their product is of good quality, meaning it has the quantities of effective ingredients that are listed on the label and contains nothing else. They need to pay for this kind of inspection and certification and have their manufacturing plants and supplements routinely tested by independent agencies. Therefore, this is reflected on the price tag to some degree – but well worth it! Otherwise, you essentially have no idea what you are swallowing. So if a brand is way cheaper than other brands, do be suspicious.
At the time the two gold-standard independent non-profit certifying agencies are the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP). There are also Consumer Labs and recently UL. Here are the labels to look for. All of these update their certifications at least once per year. Trust brands with these certifications:
The brands that go above and beyond
These are the brands that are not only independently certified, but they also take it upon themselves to have each and every batch tested, and provide a certificate of analysis. These are the brands to trust that they contain what they say! The ones I rely on (and this is NOT an all-inclusive list of quality brands, please vet brands not on here using the above certifications) include:
- Design’s For Health
- Douglas Labs
- Integrative Therapeutics
- Life Extension
- Nordic Naturals
- Protocol For Life Balance
- Pure Encapsulations
- Source Naturals
- Vital Nutrients
Amazon seems so great but is it really?
Unless the item comes direct from the manufacturer you need to exercise caution. If you don’t, you run the risk of purchasing something that is counterfeit, stolen, or resold from a third party who is not authorized to distribute these products. In addition, you don’t know how the products were stored (exposure to heat or light damages many supplements), and you don’t know if the products were expired and repackaged.
So when it comes to Amazon, only buy from the manufacturer.
Big brands that disregard independent testing
Many of the big companies that sell cheap supplements completely disregard the need for any testing or certification at all. They can rely on their brand names and cheap prices to sell their products. This includes drugstore brands and grocery store brands (yes Trader Joe’s is included), and big pharmaceutical company brands (Bayer/Flintstones and Pfizer/Centrum). It’s ironic because these companies can afford testing and certification – so why don’t they do it? I think we all know the answer to this question.
In general, it’s best to avoid drugstores and grocery stores for supplements, as they don’t tend to carry quality brands. GNC and Vitamin Shoppe have also gotten in trouble for carrying contaminated brands. Exceptions to this include Whole Foods which is careful about brand selection and Kirkland which is the Costco brand and is NSF certified, however not all brands Costco carries are good quality.
Where to buy quality supplements so you don’t have to research brands
Purchasing directly from a manufacturer who meets the criteria we discuss here is your safest bet. Some of them have their own store on Amazon, such as Designs for Health. As far as a shop to get a variety of brands, hands down I trust Pharmaca because they only carry high-quality brands, including ones that are only available through licensed practitioners or pharmacies. If you don’t have one near you, they have an online shop. There’s also the Fullscript online pharmacy which is similar to Pharmaca in terms of only carrying good-quality products. Or, you may have a local health food store, practitioner, or pharmacy that you trust.
Now when it comes to knowing which supplement ingredients, and in what forms and amounts to take for you as an individual, this is a complex topic that we cover in other posts, articles, and guides. I love helping individuals sort through their bag of questionable supplements and hone it down to what they actually need.
Questions about this topic? Please ask below in the comments.