Functional Training Zones

The Simple Guide to Safer Supplementation

By: EXOS’ Joel Totoro

Filling the gaps in our nutrition with pills and powders isn’t a new concept. It’s been part of our culture since the days of snake oils and elixirs sold in traveling medicine shows in the Old West, and in today’s $30 billion industry the quick fix is still the goal, especially as the world’s pace continues to speed up.

What we know today that we didn’t know then is that you can’t out exercise or out supplement a bad diet. As we age, supplement use increases as we attempt to manage our schedules, maladies, and everyday aches and pains. According to a 2012 CRN consumer survey, 60 percent of 18-34 year olds report taking a supplement, and that number grows to 69 percent in the 34-56 groups and a staggering 78 percent in the 55 and over segment.

The large demand for supplementation has made the industry an attractive one, leading to a congested and difficult marketplace for consumers to navigate. The staggering number of products on the market can be overwhelming, but it’s the lack of regulation that’s the true danger. While regulations do exist around the claims that can be made on a supplement label, manufacturers aren’t required to submit their products to any pre-market approval process like food and medicine manufacturers.

In 2007, the Food and Drug Administration issued good manufacturing practices that dictate guidelines for preparation, purity, and accuracy of labeling. While these policies are presented as minimum expectations, companies are left to police themselves. An FDA survey reveals that more than 70 percent of supplement manufacturers fail to comply with these basic guidelines. This lack of oversight has led some to refer to the industry as the “wild, wild West.”  

In February, the New York State office of the attorney general found that close to four out of five products on the shelves of four major retailers contained little to none of the herbs advertised on the bottles.

Fortunately for consumers many companies hold themselves to a higher standard and comply with the policies issued by the FDA. Here’s how you can protect yourself when choosing a supplement.

Look for third-party testing.
Brands often hire outside, independent companies to audit their manufacturing processes and their products to ensure good manufacturing policies are met, and that the product contains the ingredients it lists on the label in the amounts listed and doesn’t contain harmful ingredients. Look for United States Pharmacopeia, NSF International, or Consumer Lab seals of approval.

Realize there’s no cure-all.
It’s illegal for dietary supplements to claim to cure or treat medical conditions. Supplements are intended to complement diets to support overall health. Direct health claims are a red flag that the manufacturer isn’t in compliance.

Take a lead from sports.
Be aware of ingredients banned in sports by agencies like the World Anti-Doping Agency, the NCAA, or professional sports organizations. While these ingredients aren’t always prohibited for general consumption, these organizations see a problem. Do your research to see if you should ban these ingredients from your nutritional game plan.  

Pay attention to the lingo.
Companies often use phrases that imply there’s science behind their product, but most of the claims aren’t backed by research. Be cautious of products claiming ancient formulas, cutting-edge science, miracle cures, or guarantees. Most companies have contact information you can use to request further information for the research behind their claims.

Watch out for warnings.
Be wary of supplements with a long list of warnings or contraindications listed on the label. Any identified adverse effects must be reported to the FDA by supplement companies.

Use your resources.
Registered dietitians are trained to evaluate the need for, effectiveness of, and safety of dietary supplements. Always consult your health-care practitioner before using a supplement. The National Institutes of Health and U.S. Anti-Doping Agency offer resources to help educate you on products before use.