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What's the Difference Between a Good Supplement and a "Junk" Supplement?

About 50 percent of adults in the U.S. have reported using at least one dietary supplement. Most people want to lead healthier lifestyles, hence the popularity of these supplements. While these items are readily available in the market, the main issue is differentiating between what is good and what is junk. Unlike pharmaceutical drugs, the FDA doesn't regulate dietary supplements. That is to say, supplements don’t have to go through strict processes, such as clinical trials, to prove their effectiveness, purity or the manufacturers’ marketing claims.

Smart consumers know that there are supplements out there that are simply junk. It is up to you to do your homework to know what will benefit you and what will not. The following are some ways to identify good supplements.

Good Supplements Use Quality Ingredients

You can identify a good supplement by determining the quality of the ingredients. The quality control for supplement ingredients is defined in FDA’s current good manufacturing practices (cGMPs). Good manufacturing practices require the manufacturers to establish specifications for identity, purity, strength and composition related to the ingredients in dietary supplements. The manufacturer is also responsible for limiting the types of contaminants in the supplement.

The purpose of cGMPs is to prevent the inclusion of harmful and low-quality ingredients, promote the inclusion of the right amount of an ingredient, prevent the presence of contaminants and encourage proper packaging and labeling of products. Manufacturers are expected to uphold good manufacturing practices by conducting tests based on valid scientific methods. As a consumer, you can determine if a supplement has quality ingredients by looking for cGMP or the USP Verified stamp.


The Vitamin Form

A vitamin will only be effective if ingested in a form that can be recognized and utilized by the body. To put this into context, let’s take a look at vitamin B12, which has four forms:

  • Cyanocobalamin – This is a synthetic form of B12. Before the body can use it, it has to remove the cyanide and covert the vitamin to methylcobalamin or adenosylcobalamin.
  • Methylcobalamin – This is the prevalent form of B12 used by the body. It is the form found in food.
  • Adenosylcobalamin – This form is found naturally in the human body, mostly in the liver.
  • Hydroxycobalamin – This is the natural form of B12 produced by bacteria. 

In this case, you would want to take a supplement with methylcobalamin. It can be utilized by the body and is naturally found in food. Unfortunately, most manufacturers use cyanocobalamin. This is because it has a long shelf life, and it is cheap. When taking such supplements, you will likely still have deficiencies.

This scenario is not specific to vitamin B12. Most companies use dl-alpha tocopherol, an inferior synthetic form of vitamin E, instead of the natural form, d-alpha tocopherol. The same goes for vitamin D; some manufacturers use ergocalciferol instead of cholecalciferol.

Now, you are likely wondering how you can identify supplements that are using the correct form of vitamins. It’s simple: Look at the label. If it only states the vitamin without showing the form, the manufacturer is probably using the inferior form.


Other Ingredients


A good supplement should not have additives, sugars, or artificial flavors or colors, as these have no benefit to the body.

Some of the useless ingredients manufacturers of junk supplements use include hydrogenated palm oil, modified food starch, talc, sucrose and FD&C food coloring. Look for the USDA Organic symbol, which appears on supplements that have more than 95 percent organic ingredients. If you do not see this symbol, chances are the supplement does not have organic products or the ingredients come from conventional produce.


The Supporting Science

Look for evidence of how well the supplement works from published scientific studies. You can search for such studies on National Institute of Health websites. Also, there are third party websites, such as Lab Door and Consumer Labs, that provide analyses of supplements. Most of the supplements you will find on these websites are of high quality. Alternatively, you can contact the manufacturer and ask if they have any published studies to support their claims.


Other Tips for Choosing Good Supplements

  • Do not fall for unrealistic claims. If a supplement claims that it will help you lose weight in a specific period of time, has a money-back guarantee or will cure a disease, it is probably junk. If the claims are too good to be true, they usually are.
  • Buy supplements made in the United States. Products coming from outside of the United States are most likely not regulated. You might expose yourself to toxins, such as harmful pesticides and herbicides.
  • Go for single-ingredient supplements. A supplement that contains one nutrient is more likely to contain a high percentage of that nutrient. Those containing multiple nutrients may not have the amount of each nutrient shown on the label.
  • Look at the recommended dosage. Generally, supplements do not have strict dosages. If the recommended dosage on a supplement is six or more capsules a day, that is a red flag. The company wants you to take more of the supplement so that you will need a new supply soon.
  • Consider where you are buying the supplement. Buying supplements from online stores, such as eBay and Walmart, can be tricky, especially if there is an offer as impressive as 50 percent off. The contents of the bottle could be very different from the label.
  • Seek advice from professionals. Ask your doctor to recommend good supplements. In the supplements section of a health food store, you will find well-trained and experienced people. Ask them which brand is the best for whatever supplement you want.
  • Consider the cost. In most cases, if it is cheap, it is junk.

The consumption of good supplements can improve your health. Take the necessary precautions to make sure that what you are taking is actually helping your body. Don’t settle for low quality when it comes to your health and wellness.

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