Sports Training & Conditioning Zone!

How Well Do You Know Your Supplements?

By Pete Williams

The nutritional supplement industry is crowded with companies that sell products that are unsafe and ineffective. What is in the product is not guaranteed to be on the label, and what is on the label is not guaranteed to be in the product, unless the supplement has gone through third-party testing.

For the professional athlete who uses such products, this can mean testing positive for a banned substance. For the performance-minded individual, this can mean wasting your hard-earned money on a product that will never live up to its claims.

Sorting through the maze of supplement products available can be confusing and frustrating. Unlike food, where it’s usually possible to trace its journey from farm to table, that’s not always the case with supplements. But you can examine the origin and path a supplement took to ensure that what you’re consuming is safe, effective, ethical, and what it’s purported to be and nothing else. Here’s what to look for:


It’s always best to eat whole foods as opposed to foods processed with additives and chemicals to assist with manufacturing and prolong shelf life. The same is true with nutritional supplements, where there are two main options: truly raw materials or raw materials with substances added to facilitate manufacturing, such as cornstarch and preservatives. Look for supplements manufactured with pure, undiluted nutrients. There should be no artificial sweeteners or colors, no gluten, and no unnecessary additives – just pure, undiluted nutrients.


Like any other product, you want a supplement that’s effective and high quality. Look for supplements in powder, liquid, or capsule form. Unlike tablets, capsules don’t need binders, lubricants, or coatings. Look for products without magnesium stearate or vegetable stearate, which are fatty acids manufacturers use to make powders flow more easily during the manufacturing process. Though these substances are safe and commonly used in the industry, they can adversely impact nutrient absorption. Check labels to make sure no magnesium stearate or vegetable stearate has snuck into your supplement.


A number of professional and elite athletes have been suspended or disqualified from competition because they consumed a supplement that contained a banned substance that did not appear on the product’s label or marketing materials. Just as a parent of a child with a nut allergy needs to know that foods were not processed or packaged at facilities that work with nuts, you want to be certain that your supplements do not run the risk of contamination with banned substances.

Look for manufacturers that quarantine and test each batch of ingredients for identity and purity before releasing them for manufacturing and again after the process is complete. Good manufacturing practices (GMPs), standard operating procedures for ensuring manufacturing consistency within the supplement industry, are required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They ensure, when followed exactly, the highest level of consumer safety in all aspects of manufacturing.

Finally, look for supplements that have received the NSF Certified for Sport certification, which ensures that what's on the label is in the product and that the product is free of more than 200 banned or prohibited substances. NSF International is an independent organization that verifies the facility has the proper methods, equipment, and controls in place for meeting quality standards. The NSF Certified for Sport program is recognized by the NFL, MLB, PGA, LPGA, and Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport.

Pete Williams is a contributing writer for EXOS, which has teamed up with Thorne Research to provide a line of high-quality performance nutrition products, available at

(August 2015)

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