According to a 2011 report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the use of dietary supplements has increased exponentially since 1994, with more than half of all Americans now taking at least one supplement every day.
While multivitamins account for roughly 40% of this market share, this leaves about 60% to other miscellaneous supplements that claim to address a wide variety of conditions—from diabetes to testosterone enhancement, and everything in between.
But despite all the claims being thrown around by supplement manufacturers, this market segment is rife with unfounded claims and outright scams.
This is because, even though the FDA is responsible for identifying and pursuing fraudulent claims, they’re only responsible for enforcing these guidelines after the supplement has reached the market—not beforehand.
In other words, the FDA only gets involved if there are numerous consumer complaints about the safety of a supplement, but they do not test it for purity, potency, or efficacy prior to it hitting the market. But what does this mean?
Ultimately, it is the sole responsibility of the manufacturer to ensure that their products are safe and that their claims are legitimate.
In fact, the FDA even states, “it is much easier for a firm to get a product on the market than it is for FDA to take a product off the market.” This means the onus is on you to decide which supplements are legitimate, and which ones are scams.
With this in mind, because HighYa is all about helping you to become a more informed consumer, we thought it would be a good idea to outline some common sense steps you can follow when deciding which supplement is right for you.
What Is a Nutritional Supplement?
Supplements, also known as dietary or nutritional supplements, are products that are intended to “supplement,” or to add dietary value, to an individual’s diet.
More specifically, according to the FDA, a dietary supplement is classified as more of a food than a drug, and is defined as “a product taken by mouth that contains a ‘dietary ingredient’ intended to supplement the diet.
“The ‘dietary ingredients’ in these products may include: vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids, and substances such as enzymes, organ tissues, glandulars, and metabolites.”
Dietary supplements can come in many forms, including liquids, powders, capsules, and tablets, and are often claimed to address a wide variety of concerns.
These can include everything from ensuring that you receive all the essential nutrients your body requires, to reducing the risks associated with certain diseases.
How to Find the Right Nutritional Supplement for You
Step 1: Which Supplements Do You Need?
It’s important to note that if you’re considering taking a new supplement, the first person you should talk with is your physician.
Because your doctor is familiar with your medical history, and because they’re often more informed than the average consumer about popular supplements available on the market, they can help steer you in the right direction.
With this said, it’s important that you don’t self-diagnose, or start taking supplements before you’ve had a chance to weigh the pros and cons with your physician.
Step 2: Which Supplements Are the Safest and Most Effective?
Once you’ve spoken with your doctor about which supplements you should take, the next step is to locate a reputable manufacturer. As we mentioned above, your physician will likely be able to offer some insight here, but if you’d like to perform some research on your own, consider the following:
As with nearly any other product on the market, not all supplements are created equal, and none are FDA approved (note: As a first step, you should take a look at the FDA’s Recalls of Foods & Dietary Supplements page).
However, they are required to expressly state, "This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease."
Despite this fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, manufacturers don’t even have to prove that a supplement is effective in order to begin marketing it.
And as we mentioned in our Garcinia Cambogia Buyer’s Guide, many nutritional supplement manufacturers make some big claims about their product, while very few choose to back these claims up.
So, the next time you’re faced with these claims, here are some tips to help you figure out what’s legitimate, and what should be avoided:
If you read that a supplement is clinically proven, does the manufacturer provide a link to, or excerpts from, any clinical studies?
If so, has the study been reviewed by recognized scientific experts and published in reputable, peer-reviewed scientific journals?
Do the claims for the product seem vague, exaggerated, or unrealistic? During our research, we’ve encountered numerous examples of nonsensical, scientific-sounding lingo that is meant to be construed as scientific fact, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
Here’s another common thread we’ve experienced when researching nutritional supplements: Manufacturers will often draw a conclusion based on a single limited study. However, keep in mind that sound health advice should be based on a relatively large body of evidence, not on one “breakthrough” finding.
According to FDA regulations, all supplements must provide a full list of ingredients on their label. However, many laboratory studies performed on a variety of supplements have shown that at least some contain ingredients not listed on their label, or that they don’t contain some of these ingredients at all (or in much lower, ineffective dosages than advertised).
Also, remember that just because the supplement’s label reads “all natural” doesn’t mean that it’s safe or effective. Many of the less reputable manufacturers will intentionally mislead to you believe that a natural supplement is therefore wholesome, or results in milder side effects than their pharmaceutical counterparts.
However, the term “natural” is fairly broad and not well defined, and may even result in dangerous side effects or interactions with prescription medications you’re already taking. As mentioned above, a simple consultation with your physician may be able to avoid most of this.
Next, make sure that the manufacturer has some kind of quality control system in place, which helps determine if the product actually contains what is stated on the label, and that it’s free of contaminants.
To accomplish this, most reputable manufacturers will submit their supplements to third party testing. However, in at least one supplement we’ve reviewed, the third-party laboratory and the manufacturer appeared to be the same company, which brings into question their legitimacy.
Finally, make sure to thoroughly research the manufacturer by looking for online reviews from consumers who have experience with a product.
If a supplement has a propensity for not working, or for causing unwanted side effects, this information will often appear online quickly. In addition, feel free to contact the manufacturer directly, and ask about their quality control processes.
Step 3: Avoid Autoship Programs
While supplement manufacturers vary widely in how they advertise their products and how they back up their claims, one common feature nearly all of them include is automatic enrollment in an autoship program.
An autoship program, often referred to as a VIP Program or something along these lines, means that the manufacturer will continue sending you a supply of their product each month, and your credit card will be charged accordingly.
While many manufacturers claim that these programs are intended to help you, it’s often the case that it’s more trouble than it’s worth. But why?
First, many dietary supplements are offered at a discount during the initial purchase, but then increase prices during the autoship program.
For example, if you purchased a supplement at $29.99 in addition to $5.99 shipping and handling, you may find that both of these prices increase (sometimes dramatically) after you’ve been enrolled in the autoship program.
Second, it’s often the case that manufacturers will make the un-enrollment process as difficult as possible, and will require extensive communication on your part.
In fact, we’ve even read reviews where consumers were forced to cancel their credit cards in order to put a stop to autoship charges.
Finally, automatically enrolling customers in an autoship program can speak volumes about how manufacturers view the quality of their supplements.
The reality is that if the supplement works as well as advertised, consumers will naturally want to continue using it, at which point they can place another order when the need arises.
Read the fine print, which will often be located in the company’s Terms & Conditions, or even in a small section on the checkout page. If on the checkout page, most reputable manufacturers will include the ability to opt out of the program with the simple press of a button.
If you aren’t given this option, read through the fine print to find out when the autoship program begins, and/or how long you have to cancel before products are shipped to you.
Keep in mind that we’ve read numerous complaints of customers being given the runaround when attempting to un-enroll, so you may not want to wait until the last minute.
What’s the Bottom Line When Shopping for a Supplement?
The reality is that, at least from a regulatory perspective, the nutritional supplements industry seems almost like the Wild West.
Manufacturers can make essentially any claim they want and aren’t required by any governmental body to back up those claims, or even prove that their supplements actually contain the ingredients they advertise.
The good news is that you now have all the tools necessary to decide which supplements you should be taking, and how to discern which manufacturers are legitimate, and which are scams. In addition, HighYa is here to help you research a wide variety of nutritional supplements.