9 things to know before buying another supplement

The supplement aisle at the drug store is lined with products that promise to prevent illness, improve energy, boost metabolism, even brighten your skin. You probably already know these capsules aren't necessarily silver bullets to perfect health. (Whatever benefits your multivitamin or omega-3 supplements offer, you still have to exercise and eat right, for example.) But you do expect them to be safe to swallow, at the very least.

Sadly, research often suggests otherwise. For example, a study found that after analysing supplements that had been recalled by the FDA for containing banned substances – such as steroids or powerful prescription medications – roughly two-thirds of the tainted products were back on store shelves with the same illicit ingredients at least six months later.

There are reputable, safe supplement-makers out there, but as the popularity of supplements has grown, so have the number of entities marketing potentially dangerous products or making unproven or misleading claims about the health benefits they may deliver.

Here’s our guide to help you avoid sketchy ingredients and choose the most established, trusted brands.

Be wary of certain types of pills

Namely exercise, and weight-loss supplements. The products analysed in the study mentioned above fell into these two categories. Several of the weight-loss supplements actually contained an amphetamine-like drug called sibutramine, which is banned in the U.S., Asia, and Europe.

Shop selectively

Big-chain drugstores, pharmacies, and supplement stores may act faster to pull recalled items.

Don't bargain-hunt

An analysis found that for six types of herbal products, the more expensive the supplement was, the more likely it was that the recommended dosage would be consistent with established standards.

Steer clear of supplements made in China

Lack of regulation and poor manufacturing practices in China mean their goods may be more likely to be contaminated with substances like lead.

Do research at reputable sites

You can read supplement fact sheets from National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements to get all the info you need on everything from the recommended daily amount (RDA) to the latest on the health benefits of a certain supplement. It's also a good idea to stay on top of warnings or recall alerts from the FDA. When you're ready to buy, the website has a store directory and list of all the participating supplement companies if you want to check before you head to the store.

Consult the experts

Namely, the store pharmacist and your doctor. The former can alert you to any potential adverse events or drug interactions, and your doc can advise you on which supplements are safe and effective.

Skip dubious ingredients

These four have been linked to serious side effects, and aren't worth the risk.

1. Kava: It has been reported to cause liver damage.

2. Bitter orange: It contains the chemical syndephrine, which has been linked to heart attacks and strokes in healthy people when taken alone or combined with caffeine.

3. Contaminated L-tryptophan: It's associated with neurotoxic reactions.

4. Chromium: When overused, it's been linked to anemia – even kidney failure.

Avoid mainstream supplement brands

They’re often owned by large pharmaceutical companies and you can bet that they don’t have your best interest in mind.

Look past marketing

A brand may look great at first glance, especially if they have a large marketing budget. Look past this for research, testing, and quality. Don’t just take their word for it. Get a third, fourth, and fifth opinion before blindly popping pills that have the potential to affect your body – positively or negatively.

Be cautious of celebrity branded supplement lines

These are most often private-labeled, which means they’ve outsourced the supplement itself, from an undisclosed source, and simply put their name and face on the bottle.

Do they disclose their purity, quality, safety, and bioavailability research and testing methods?

If this information is not public, email the brand and ask them about it. You should be able to tell by their response whether they have taken the time, energy, and investments necessary to ensure that their products are the highest quality possible.

If they respond with something along the lines of “due to our proprietary formula…” and will not tell you anything – that’s a red flag. You have a right to know the quality of the supplements you’re investing in to promote and protect your health.

If you don’t get a reply, that’s another red flag – move on!

What is included in the “other ingredients” list?

Supplements are labelled differently than processed food products. On a supplement, you’ll see “Supplement Facts” then “Other Ingredients” below that. Do the “other ingredients” contain cheap fillers and dangerous, synthetic ingredients? Or if they don’t disclose the full ingredient list, that’s a huge red flag – move on!