It's easy to get overwhelmed in the supplement section by the dazzling array of capsules, tinctures, and tablets—and the promises that come with them. And because the industry remains largely unregulated, manufacturers aren't required to prove their products are safe or effective. How, you ask as you stand there pondering your choices, do you know which products actually provide the ingredients and benefits their labels claim?
We headed to the experts to get some answers and compiled this cheat sheet of tools and strategies to help you become a savvier shopper.
1. Know the pills you need.
Consider your needs before you start shopping, says Woodson Merrell, M.D., chairman of the department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.
To support your diet: "If you want to be sure you're getting nutrients that may be missing from your diet, then do your homework and check with your healthcare provider," says Merrell. "Buy a brand with proven quality control and follow the label instructions."
To treat a medical condition: If you want to treat something like migraines or high cholesterol, you need to work with a healthcare practitioner, cautions Merrell. Otherwise, you may buy a product you don't need.
2. Do your homework.
The best way to avoid indecision is to learn all you can about a product beforehand. Use the following resources.
Find a supplement guru: Get advice from someone who deals with the latest supplement products on a regular basis and can easily recommend the most reputable companies. "Develop a relationship with someone you trust," suggests Cheryl Myers, R.N., vice president of health sciences at Enzymatic Therapy, a supplement maker.
Ask a supplement buyer: "For mild to moderate health concerns—like indigestion—ask the supplement buyer at your local health food store," Meyers recommends.
Talk to an integrative physician: For more serious issues—such as hormone imbalances—get recommendations from an integrative physician, she says. Visit American Association of Naturopathic Physicians naturopathic.org.
Use reliable websites: ConsumerLab .com (annual subscription, $30) publishes the results of its independent tests for purity, quality, and effectiveness on its website. Since 1999, the company has tested more than 400 different brands of dietary aids like vitamins and minerals and has found that "25 percent of them fail," reports president Tod Cooperman.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine's Dietary Supplements Labels Database dietarysupplements.nlm.nih.gov gives you product label information and includes links to fact sheets, clinical studies, warnings, and recalls. Medline Plus (nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus) is a user-friendly guide to health topics, drugs, and supplements. It's operated jointly by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Check out the supplement maker: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires supplement labels to bear the maker's address and phone number. Call the company to find out if it follows the FDA's Good Manufacturing Practices, hires a third-party lab to certify its products, or has an on-site laboratory. (Companies with labs on their premises are better able to control their ingredients, which lowers the odds of contamination, says Myers.) "You can also ask the company to put the response in a letter or an e-mail," says Cooperman. "They may be more careful, and may even refer the question to someone with more expertise."