Walk into any supermarket and you will undoubtedly see entire aisles dedicated to nutritional supplements, vitamins, and other health oriented products. Perhaps the fervor at which Americans pursue better health can be conflated to this image, an endless aisle filled with near limitless choices. Polls show that more than half of all Americans regularly supplement their diet with vitamins.
Yet, not all of the products on the market are equal in a few extremely important categories like potency, purity, and accuracy of labeling. Estimates have determined that billions of dollars are spent every year on supplements that simply do not work. There are many reasons to explain why a supplement may be ineffective, but potency is perhaps the most important.
Potency, defined as the power of something to influence or make an impression, is extremely important in determining the efficacy of a supplement. In pharmacology, potency is expressed in terms of the amount it takes of a substance to produce an effect of given intensity. A highly potent compound will produce strong results at low concentrations, and vice versa for lower potency compounds.
With potency being of so much importance, one would think that more oversight would exist concerning the accuracy of purity claims on supplement labels, but companies continue to sell less potent products than the label states, duping customers out of billions each year.
Do Your Research when Selecting a Supplement.
The Federal Drug Administration issues Current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) regulations, which a vigilant consumer should ensure are being followed by companies whose supplements they consume.
With growing concern about substandard manufacturing processes in the dietary supplement industry, the FDA introduced these standards, attempting to ensure that the proper controls be in place for dietary supplements during manufacturing, packaging, labeling and holding operations. As per the FDA website, “This includes establishing strong quality management systems, obtaining appropriate quality raw materials, establishing robust operating procedures, detecting and investigating product quality deviations, and maintaining reliable testing laboratories.”
Because consumer safety is the result of companies producing inferior products, the FDA considers any product manufactured by a company not following cGMPs to be “adulterated” under the law. However, like all consumer products, many inferior products slip through the cracks, so it is important to remain vigilant when selecting a supplement company.
Some companies take their supplements above and beyond United States standards. The Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is similar to our American FDA, with the exception that they are even more stringent concerning which supplements make it to Australian shelves.
The TGA is considered to be the most stringent, toughest regulatory agency in the world, and because of this have an extremely great reputation for protecting Australian consumers from harmful products. The Aussies are among the leaders of the world in discovering and banning toxic substances, leaving the USA sometimes decades behind, so if a supplement you’re investigating has been approved by the TGA, it is extremely likely to be safe, effective, and accurately labeled, a luxury not always enjoyed by American shoppers.
Another great identifier of quality supplements is whether or not they’ve been tested by a third party laboratory. Because there are fewer restrictions on goods labeled “dietary supplements”, there are also fewer government oversights regulating the industry. This is why third party testing is important. A supplement that has been identified by an unbiased third party lends a lot of credibility to the supplement and its manufacturing process.
To truly ensure that the potency of a supplement is as labeled, it must be tested by a reputable third party laboratory.
The Nutritional and Sports Supplements certification (NSF) has become the gold standard in third party evaluation, having developed the nation’s first independent testing standard and product certification program strictly for dietary supplements.
Using three major components, the NSF certifies products against NSF/ANSI 173, the only American National Standard that establishes requirements for the ingredients in dietary and nutritional supplements.
- Label Claim Review: Testing to certify that the label accurately reflects ingredients in the supplement.
- Toxicology Review: Certifying product formulation.
- Contamination Review: Certifying that the product does not contain any undeclared ingredients or toxic contaminants.
While some independent laboratories claim to be unbiased, there is a lot of collusion in American business, so the NSF is the self-proclaimed “independent, third-party testing organization that offers true testing of dietary supplements.”
In addition to good manufacturing practices and third party evaluation, when assessing the potency of a supplement you want to look for a certificate of analysis (COA). A certificate of analysis means that a product has been tested in areas like proper manufacturing guidelines, adherence to specifications, contaminant testing, and more.
Each of these areas are important in determining the potency of the product. Because there are so little regulations in the Unites States concerning dietary supplements, companies from outside the U.S. are shipping in inferior products for much cheaper than American products. But this cost savings comes at a price. Many overseas factories do not place emphasis on meeting the health standards that Americans hold in such high regard.
This is not to say that all foreign supplements are inferior to American supplements, but in general, it is always best practice to ensure a supplement that you’re using has been certified as pure and potent with a certificate of analysis.
When choosing a dietary supplement, remember, you are putting a foreign substance into your body, so don’t just take a company’s word for it. Do some investigating, and find out how far the company has gone to ensure the quality of its product.
Choosing a higher quality product will inevitably mean spending more, but when it comes to safety and reliability, you should really spare no expense, after all, your health and wellbeing relies on it.
Looking for a few simple quality identifiers like the NSF approval, certificate of analysis, and testing by an unbiased third party will ensure that you’re not wasting your money on dietary supplements that are ineffective and laden with harmful toxins. Putting in the extra work up front will ensure that you’re spending money on truly potent products.