The FDA typically learns of problems with a product only after it’s in stores. That’s unlike prescription and over-the-counter drugs, which undergo multiple clinical trials as part of a lengthy FDA application process before they’re approved for sale.
To learn about potential problems with supplements, the agency relies on reports of injuries or misleading marketing submitted by consumers or health-care providers.
“The FDA can’t ban risky supplements until they have some evidence or early signals that there’s a safety problem,” says Chuck Bell, who advocates for better oversight of supplements for Consumer Reports.
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Still, a vitamin, mineral or another supplement may sometimes be needed, such as iron for those with anemia. So knowing what to look for when choosing a product is key.
Look for the USP certification seal. The U.S. Pharmacopeia sets the most widely accepted standards for dietary supplements, Consumer Reports experts say. (A list of USP-verified products can be found at quality-supplements.org.) You may also find seals from other valid third-party testersincluding ConsumerLab.comNSF International and UL Solutions. But ignore unknown certifications, even if they look official.
One label you won’t find? Test Labs USA. That was a fictitious seal of approval that 15 percent of people in CR’s survey who typically take supplements said they look for when buying supplements.
Don’t be fooled by “proprietary blends.” While companies that use the term must list the ingredients in their products, they don’t have to list the amounts of each one, Bell says. “So you’ll have no idea how little or how much a product has of any one of the ingredients,” he says. That’s especially a problem for compounds that can be hazardous at high doses, such as caffeine.
Skip products sold with claims that are too good to be true. Supplement makers can’t say their products treat or cure a disease or other health condition, according to the FDA. Also watch out for any supplement that’s purported to be a scientific breakthrough, a miracle cure or an ancient remedy, as well as any product that has a secret ingredient or whose label has fancy phrases such as “molecule multiplicity,” “insulin receptor sites,” “glucose metabolism” or “thermogenesis.”
Don’t rely on “organic,” “natural” or “whole foods” labeling. Products with “organic” on the label must be grown and produced without certain chemicals, but that doesn’t guarantee the dosage or purity of a supplement’s key ingredients. And the term “natural” has no official FDA meaning. Finally, even if a pill contains real fruits or vegetables, products labeled “whole foods” aren’t substitutes for the real thing.
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