Shopping for Supplements

Shopping for Supplements
3. Look for a seal of approval
If a supplement features a seal from one of three third-party certifiers, you can feel confident about its ingredients. Of the three, NSF International and U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) are voluntary programs (companies choose whether or not to participate). ConsumerLab .com is independent: To conduct research, it purchases products off the shelf and tests them without the input or cooperation of manufacturers. The company has found multivitamin and herbal products contaminated with more than 15 micrograms (mcg) of lead per daily serving size; 0.5 mcg per day is the limit above which the State of California requires a warning on the label.
Another seal, the Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), indicates that a product meets new FDA supplement-manufacturing standards, which are being phased in over a three year period. But because the FDA's standards are limited to manufacturing practices (and some experts feel they are not strict enough), the value of the GMP seal is not yet as clear as that of third-party certifiers.

4. Know the key ingredients
Sometimes one component makes all the difference between a product that works and one that doesn't, and it's not always the main label ingredient. Cooperman cites turmeric as an example: Its anti-inflammatory activity is directly linked to a little-known substance called curcumin. "People in the know buy turmeric that will deliver at least 1,000 mg of curcumin per day," he says.

5. Pay for quality ingredients
Avoid buying the cheapest bottle on the shelf, especially if it's a store brand. Most large retail chains don't make their own supplements but outsource to the lowest bidder, says Jason Theodosakis, M.D., professor of preventive medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson, Ariz. Choosing the cheaper option is especially dicey if the key ingredients are expensive to procure and produce. For instance: "There is a 15- to 20-fold difference between the cheapest and the most expensive raw material for fish oil," says Theodosakis. A low-quality oil may not get absorbed as easily. "A cheap product may be worse than useless because you think you're being treated when, in reality, you're not," he warns.

6. Carefully assess any hype
When a hot, new ingredient hits the headlines, a surge of poor-quality products floods the market and "suppliers of raw materials can't keep up with the demand," says Cooperman. He points to resveratrol, an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound in grape skins, as an example. Last year, it was touted as a panacea for everything from heart disease to cancer. But when ConsumerLab.com tested 14 resveratrol products, one supplement, which claimed to have 400 milligrams (mg) of red wine grape complex per capsule, contained a mere 2.2 mg.
Bottom Line If you must have the newest supplement, ask your source to recommend a brand or check consumerlab.com.