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How to Tell if Your Supplements Have "Low Quality" Ingredients

These supplements are a waste of money, and could be dangerous.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

With so many supplements available, it can be difficult to know which ones have quality ingredients and which are a waste of money. The FDA regulates dietary supplements under different regulations than those for foods and drugs, and can only take action against a supplement after it is already on the market. "It's recommended to always talk with your doctor before taking any sort of supplement," says internal medicine specialist Ronan Factora, MD. "Unregulated supplements can pose a serious risk if taken with other medicine, in excessive amounts or taken for an unconfirmed medical problem." Here are five supplement 'red flags' to be aware of. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.

1

Third-Party Testing Is Key

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Third party testing—such as by NSF or the US Pharmacopeia (USP) Dietary Supplement Verification Program—means the ingredients in a supplement have been vigorously checked. Here are the three components of the NSF dietary supplements certification program:

  • "Label claim review to certify that what's on the label is in the bottle"
  • "Toxicology review to certify product formulation (we don't test for efficacy)"
  • "Contaminant review to ensure the product contains no undeclared ingredients or unacceptable levels of contaminants"

2

NSF Testing for Sport

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NSF has a specific certification for sports supplements, recognized by a host of sports organizations including the NFL, MLB, PGA, and more. "Sometimes, risky or dangerous ingredients are even listed right on the label or identified by a confusing name," says the US Anti-Doping Agency. "If athletes choose to use supplements despite these known risks, USADA has always recommended that athletes use only dietary supplements that have been certified by a third-party program that tests for substances prohibited in sport. USADA currently recognizes NSF Certified for Sport® as the program best suited for athletes to reduce the risk from supplements."

3

Imported Supplements

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"If you buy imported products marketed as 'dietary supplements' and nonprescription drug products from ethnic or international stores, flea markets, swap meets or online, watch out," warns the FDA. "Health fraud scams abound. Health scammers often target advertising to people who prefer to shop at nontraditional places, especially those who have limited English proficiency and limited access to health care services and information."

4

'Red Flag' Words From the FDA

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The FDA has warned against buying supplements marketed with variations of the names "Artri" or "Ortiga", saying they contain serious drugs not listed on the label. "FDA has received adverse event reports, including of liver toxicity and death, associated with the use of Artri King products, since the agency issued its first warning about an Artri Ajo King product on January 5, 2022," the agency says in a consumer warning.

5

Don't Take Chances

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If a supplement is not recommended by a medical professional, be very careful and err on the side of caution. "The problem of adulterated dietary supplements is unlikely to go away anytime soon," says Robert H. Shmerling, MD. "But I am hopeful that the FDA will take a more active role on this issue and help protect consumers from dietary supplements that may contain hidden ingredients. In the meantime, if you can't be sure what's in a supplement, you may be risking your health even as you're trying to improve it. The safest thing may be to stick with the tried and true (and tested). Ask your doctor and pharmacist if you have questions. But don't be surprised if they say little more than 'buyer beware.'" And to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Ferozan Mast
Ferozan Mast is a science, health and wellness writer with a passion for making science and research-backed information accessible to a general audience. Read more