There are more options on the market for dietary supplements than ever before, and this dizzying selection has brought with it a serious problem; how can you decide which ones are worth your time and money, and which aren’t?
In this guide, we’ll be taking a look at the process we use ourselves when evaluating the hundreds of nutritional supplements we report on each and every day here at Highya. Armed with this information, you should be able to safely buy supplements online and carve a path toward finding effective products that serve you well in the long run.
Defining a Dietary Supplement
According to the FDA, a dietary supplement is any product intended for ingestion that contains a “dietary ingredient” meant to add further nutritional value to the body. This definition can be (and has been) stretched, however, to include products that claim to help with diseases or ailments (such as anti-aging and memory-boosting).
All of these types of supplements may have different purposes, but they all boil down to the same components: a handful of clinical and herbal ingredients, a brand, and a list of claimed benefits.
Now that we’ve determined these foundational aspects of dietary supplements, let’s take a closer look at the marketing practices used by manufacturers to subtly guide you to make a purchase.
Understand How Supplement Brands Use Marketing Tricks to Get You to Buy
While there are numerous supplement manufacturers out there who provide honest and clear messaging for their products, we’ve seen firsthand how certain, less-than-stellar companies use tricky marketing practices to coax you into making a hasty purchase without first knowing all of the details about what you’re actually buying.
For instance, many supplements that we’ve reported on in the past are only available online, and plenty of them feature pages that look a lot like this:
Can you spot all the different ways this page is trying to win you over? Let’s point out a few of them:
Heavy use of explosive terms & phrases like “revolutionary clinically-proven supplement” and “remember EVERYTHING”
“Security” badges to help establish a sense of trust
List of larger news outlets to establish credibility
Availability warning banner across the top of the page stating that “due to extremely high media demand, there is limited supply in stock...” which contributes to a sense of urgency
Large, prominent buttons promoting a “risk-free trial”
Dramatic, heavily stylized imagery meant to convey a sense of enhanced intelligence or happiness
Here is another example, using many of the above tricks to get you to buy:
Each of these individual components come together to elicit an emotional reaction from you, prompting and guiding you toward a quick, impulsive purchasing decision. So, why is this important to be aware of?
Simply put, the FDA does not require supplement manufacturers to back up any of their statements or claims about their product’s effectiveness with scientific or clinical data. This means that any supplement maker is free to make the most ambitious or exaggerative promises about the effects of their formula without providing a single shred of evidence to back said claims up.
Notice how despite these high-visibility marketing elements in the screenshot above, what is curiously absent is any relevant scientific information or any links to clinical studies or other pieces of info that might provide some substance to the bold claims made about what the product can do for you?
To make better buying decisions online, it is crucial to develop a keen eye for these elements and a patient, fact-based approach to being sold on a particular solution. No matter how good particular product sounds, slowing down and doing a bit of research beforehand can make all of the difference in the end. This leads us to our next major point: what exactly should you be researching when evaluating a dietary supplement?
Keep Ingredient Information in Focus
Ingredients are at the heart of any supplement; they are the most important determining factor to consider when shopping for the ideal product. It’s quite surprising, then, that based on our previous experience, many manufacturers neglect to even include this information when marketing their product online. How could this be?
Because of the FDA’s light-touch regulatory policy concerning the supplement industry, manufacturers are not required to list out each of their individual ingredients online, though they are still required to do so on the bottle itself. Because of this, some choose to completely omit the substances from the website altogether, while others include it in an out-of-the-way location such as the bottom of the page or on a separate page.
Of course, there are many companies which do still list out this information, and in general, these are the products you’ll want to seek out as a starting point to your search. Another important factor to consider: concentration amounts. Based on our previous experience, we’ve found that some products will list all of their ingredients, but leave out any details about how much of each is included in the formula.
In our view, this information is nearly as important as the ingredients themselves (we’ll take a look at why in just a moment). If you’re trying to evaluate the substances found in a particular supplement, we’d recommend making use of authoritative sources such as WebMD and Examine.com. These consumer-focused websites often contain up-to-date, reputable information about specific substances that you can use to inform your decision making.
You can also try searching the PubMed databases for relevant clinical studies that may help you decide how effective you can expect a product to be. This is where concentration amounts come into play; studies and clinical information from these sources will sometimes list recommended dosages for effectiveness and safety. Without any info to compare with from the manufacturer, this process is made more difficult.
Get a Feel for What Real Customers Are Saying
Another crucial aspect of choosing the right supplement is putting your finger on the pulse of what other users are saying about their experiences with it. Often, the most valuable insight into how effective a certain formula is can come in the form of customer reviews where individuals can openly discuss what they liked (and disliked) about a dizzying array of products and services
That said, being a neutral source does not guarantee that you are reading a genuine customer account. Fake reviews have penetrated even the most reputable online marketplaces, so it’s usually a good idea to be skeptical of products with universal 5-star ratings, or those with suspiciously similar text.
Another good resource for finding unbiased, fact-based information is right here at Highya. Our dedicated team covers new products every single day, so chances are, if you’re looking at a supplement, we’ve written about it. Be sure to search our database, as well as other consumer advocacy sites when looking for actionable information on a given product.
Avoid Free Trials and Autoship Programs Whenever Possible
We’ve covered these topics pretty extensively in the past, so we won’t devote too much real-estate to them here. All the same, it’s important that you understand the inherent risks associated with these pricing structures, so let’s briefly overview what they look like.
Often, a supplement manufacturer will advertise their product as being part of a risk-free trial. These programs tend to vary little between brands; most will only ask for a small amount (usually under $6 or so) in shipping fees in exchange for a full month’s worth of the solution. Sounds simple enough, right? Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is often anything but.
Exploring the terms and conditions found at the bottom of most checkout pages will typically reveal that these “trials” only last up to about two weeks, and when they conclude, it almost always results in a much larger charge being automatically applied to your credit card.
In addition, the conclusion of the trial period nearly always marks your enrollment in an autoship program, meaning that you’ll continue to be charged this amount each month in exchange for a new supply of the supplement.
To make matters more confusing, many of our readers have reported not even knowing about these programs before the charges start rolling in, and others have told us horror stories about their difficulties canceling them, or requesting refunds. Because of the potential frustration involved, we generally advise readers to steer clear of these pricing setups whenever and wherever possible.
Talk With Your Doctor
If you’ve found a dietary supplement that you think may work well for your needs, but are still unsure about its effectiveness for whatever reason, the best option may be to talk with your doctor directly about your next move.
This helpful list from WebMD illustrates some example questions that you can ask to gain more insight into a particular product:
- “Can this supplement help me? Do I need it for a medical condition or to prevent disease?
- What does the research say about its benefits?
- How much would I take?
- When and for how long do I need it?
- Should I take it as a pill, powder, or liquid?
- Which form of the vitamin (vitamin D2 or D3, for instance) is the best?
- Are there any side effects?
- What are the best brands of this supplement in terms of quality, safety, and how well they work?
- Can I take it along with my other medications? Should I avoid any foods?
- Will I need to stop taking it if I have to have surgery?”
Ultimately, this is one of the most direct paths forward to an effective, reputable solution that works for you in the long run.
For more information on buying nutritional supplements, be sure to check out our other articles:
- Can Dietary Supplements & Vitamins Cause Dangerous Side Effects?
- Do You Need to Take Vitamins or Dietary Supplements?
- 6 Ways to Spot a Scam Website in Less Than 30 Seconds