Choosing Effective Supplements Guidelines

Okay, you’ve read about the virtues and drawbacks of supplements. You’ve decided which supplements you think may do you some good. Now it’s crunch time, and all you really want to know is how to choose the safest, most effective products. The guidelines in here can help.

  • Choosing a well-known brand - Even though the FDA can’t require manufacturers to submit safety and effectiveness data, a respected name on the label offers some assurance of a quality product. It also promises a fresh product; well-known brands generally sell out more quickly.

The initials USP (U.S. Pharmacopoeia, a reputable testing organization) are another quality statement, and so are the words “release assured” or “proven release,” which mean the supplement is easily absorbed by your body.

  • Checking the ingredient list - Check the supplement label. In the early 1990s, the FDA introduced the consumer- friendly nutrition food label with its mini-nutrition guide to nutrient content, complete ingredient listings, and dependable information about how eating certain foods may affect your risk of chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and cancer.

The FDA’s new supplement labels must list all ingredients. The label for vitamin and mineral products must give you the quantity per nutrient per serving plus the %DV (percentage daily value), the percentage of the RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance).

The listings for other dietary supplements, such as botanicals (herbs) and phytochemicals, must show the quantity per serving plus the part of the plant from which the ingredient is drawn (root, leaves, and so on). A manufacturer’s own proprietary blend of two or more botanicals must list the weight of the total blend.

  • Looking for the expiration date - Over time, all dietary supplements become less potent. Always choose the product with the longest useful shelf life. Pass on the ones that will expire before you can use all the pills, such as the 100-pill bottle with an expiration date 30 days from now.
  • Checking the storage requirements - Even when you buy a product with the correct expiration date, it may be less effective if you don’t keep it in the right place. Some supplements must be refrigerated; the rest you need to store, like any food product, in a cool, dry place. Avoid putting dietary supplements in a cabinet above the stove or refrigerator — true, the fridge is cold inside, but the motor pulsing away outside emits heat.
  • Choosing a sensible dose - Unless your doctor prescribes a dietary supplement as medicine, you don’t need products marked “therapeutic,” “extra-strength,” or any variation thereof. Pick one that gives you no more than the RDA for any ingredient.
  • Avoiding hype - When the label promises something that’s too good to be true — “Buy me! You’ll live forever” — you know it’s too good to be true. The FDA doesn’t permit supplement marketers to claim that their products cure or prevent disease (that would make them medicines that require premarket testing).

But the agency does allow claims that affect function, such as “maintains your cholesterol” (the no-no medical claim would be “lowers your cholesterol”).

Another potential hype zone is the one labeled “natural,” as in “natural vitamins are better.” If you took Chem 101 in college, you know that the ascorbic acid (vitamin C) in oranges has exactly the same chemical composition as the ascorbic acid some nutritional chemist cooks up in her lab.

But the ascorbic acid in a “natural” vitamin pill may come without additives such as coloring agents or fillers used in “regular” vitamin pills. In other words, if you aren’t sensitive to the coloring agents or fillers in plain old pills, don’t spend the extra dollars for “natural.” If you are sensitive, do.