With millions of dietary supplements on the market today, it’s more crucial than ever before to be certain that what you are paying for will actually translate to effective results. Most of us turn to supplements to help alleviate health issues, but in some cases, what we end up paying for can end up being a waste, or in some cases, even a danger to our health.
Trying to determine whether or not a particular ingredient is “effective” can be complicated, especially when it seems as though so many differing voices are out there online. In this article, we’ll narrow the process down to just three factors to keep in mind during your research:
- Clinical evidence reported by authoritative sources
- Application and biological differences
After that, we’ll wrap up with a few step-by-step questions that you can use to help empower your purchasing decisions. These will also be helpful if you find that you’re still unable to fully understand the claims made about a product, even after researching it. Let’s dive in.
Lean on Authoritative Sources for Quality Information
Perhaps no one piece of advice is more important when evaluating a dietary supplement than this one. The FDA doesn’t regulate supplements the same way they do food or prescription medications, which means that you’ll need to rely on your own research to fill in the gaps between hype and scientific evidence. Because of this, you’re going to need some quality sources.
Based on our years of experience reporting on hundreds of different supplements of all types, here are a small list of our favorites.
Perhaps the largest and most well-known consumer health website on the Internet, WebMD has a storied history of providing up-to-date, actionable health information to the masses, but their value extends to supplement ingredients as well. WebMD features one of the largest and most comprehensive clinical ingredient databases on the planet, and here at Highya, we regularly use this information in evaluating the hundreds of supplements we cover each and every year.
Examine.com is another consumer health group that specializes in distilling clinical data into a format that is easy to understand and apply. It’s especially useful to check here if WebMD doesn’t include information on an ingredient as it pertains to a particular health issue, as they will often include information not found elsewhere, such as how many clinical studies have been done on a given ingredient, or who is funding those studies.
With a special emphasis on potential interactions and side effects, Drugs.com is our go-to website for feeling out a product’s potential risks. This is especially true for those who regularly take other prescription medications, and are worried about any potential side effects that could crop up when using a new supplement.
The Mayo Clinic
Far from being just another health website, the Mayo Clinic is actually a nonprofit organization with practices in multiple states across the US. Their web databases are filled with consumer-centric actionable advice on a wide range of topics, and dietary supplement ingredients are no exception.
Last but certainly not least, PubMed is an absolutely massive library of nearly 27 million clinical studies and other medial reviews, allowing you to go straight to the source when it comes to up-to-date, reputable medical information. This is useful for products that are claiming to be supported by clinical studies, but fail to link them directly, allowing you to check to see just how accurate these statements are for yourself.
The Natural Medicines Database
The Natural Medicines Database offers an unbiased, evidence-based look into thousands of individual ingredients, giving you the latest information straight from clinical journals and studies across the world. This includes a detailed breakdown of dosage information, potential interactions, and a comprehensive list of known effects, so if you’re looking for a more involved resource, this one fits the bill. (Note: this is a paid resource.)
ConsumerLab’s mission is to provide users with actionable information on thousands of different health and nutritional products by leveraging independent testing to verify their claims for accuracy and completeness. Another intensive resource for the most discerning individuals, this website offers you in-depth answers to specific product questions. (Note: this is a paid resource.)
Considering the Concentration Amount
When leveraging the above sources for information, keep in mind that the concentration or dosage amount of the ingredients used in a particular formula is just as important as the ingredients themselves. Many ingredients can have drastically different effects depending on how much is consumed, so knowing this can sometimes be the difference between a positive reaction and a negative one.
When evaluating a dietary supplement, pay attention to this information. If it isn’t provided in the nutrition facts, or otherwise listed on the product’s website, try reaching out to customer service to ask about it if possible. If this information isn’t available, we consider it a red flag, as without it, not only do you not have the full picture of what positive effects you may experience, you also are left open to the possibility of unforeseen negative effects as well.
Other Factors to Consider
As you look through the sources above, be sure to note how the ingredients were evaluated by authority sources when describing the effects they may have. For instance, if you see that WebMD has listed clinical results from a study conducted by mouth, don’t assume that the same results will hold true for a topically-applied product, and vice versa.
It’s also important to keep in mind that the scientific community is constantly changing and growing as new information is discovered, peer-reviewed, contested and iterated on. Be sure to check back with the sources listed above periodically to see how things have changed.
Finally, remember that humans are unique and highly varied, and what works for one person (or even many people) cannot always be guaranteed to work for you. For this reason alone, it’s important to keep your excitement and expectations in check, even if you feel you’ve found a quality product with clinically substantiated claims.
Questions to Ask Yourself When Reviewing a Dietary Supplement
As you are narrowing down your search for a quality dietary supplement, keep the following questions in mind to ensure that you are on the right path:
What Is the Purpose of the Site You’ve Found the Supplement On?
Obviously, the goal of any product is to make money, that part isn’t in question. However, by studying the language used on a website, patterns appear that separate websites that try their best to educate customers, versus those that are simply trying to get you to make a purchase as quickly as possible.
For instance, compare a product’s website that goes out of its way to educate you by linking to relevant clinical studies and providing a full ingredient list to one that completely hides this information and immediately asks you to enter your information in as part of a “free trial,” and the difference becomes quite clear.
Does It Sound Too Good to Be True?
This old adage is as true now as it ever was; if you feel that a supplement makes claims that sound like a fairytale, they are probably closer to one than they are to reality. As the FDA points out, even nonsensical sales language can be convincing when coupled with the right imagery, so learning to tell the difference between hype and substance is one of the best things you can do to protect yourself from potentially dangerous products.
If a particular product promises the world but provides no evidence for its claims, be wary. After all, if you had a breakthrough on your hands, is that how you would present it to the world?
Is Information Up-To-Date?
If you’ve found a website that makes claims counter to what other sources are saying, check to ensure that it isn’t outdated or incomplete. There may be a newer version of the product available, so you can always reach out to customer service to inquire about the latest findings and trends.
Before Pulling the Trigger: Talk With Your Doctor
If all else fails, ask a professional. This advice can apply to just about anything, and in the world of dietary supplements, it’s one of the most straightforward paths toward a blunt assessment of a supplement’s potential value. If you find a product that you think may be beneficial for you, make an appointment with your doctor to discuss it before entering in your credit card information.
Here are some questions you can ask during your appointment:
- Will this be effective for me?
- Are there any side effects I should be concerned with?
- How much should I be taking? Are the dosage amounts included in the product in line with this amount?
- Is this best taken as a pill, or as a powder, liquid, or other forms?
- How long should I take this for, and is it safe for long-term use in general?
- Will this interact meaningfully with any of my other medications?
If nothing else, your doctor will be able to help you to set realistic expectations of what a particular supplement product might be able to do for you in the long run.
The Bottom Line: Slow Down and Think Critically to Understand the Claims of Any Supplement
When trying to determine whether or not the ingredients found in a given supplement are effective, there are no easy shortcuts. Based on our extensive experience reporting on these sorts of products, we’ve found that a small subsection of brands will do whatever it takes to get you to make a purchase, including skewing or even simply not including any evidence for their claims at all.
By leaning on authoritative sources, paying attention to the details, and consulting with a professional, you can ensure that you are going into a potential purchase with as much quality information as possible, which will hopefully translate to a more effective, proven solution in the long run.
For more about buying dietary supplements, be sure and read our additional guides below:
- Do You Need to Take Vitamins or Dietary Supplements?
- Can Dietary Supplements & Vitamins Cause Dangerous Side Effects?
- Your Complete Guide on How to Buy a Nutritional Supplement