Like with most things worth doing, there are no shortcuts to getting fit. “Any dietary supplement promising to miraculously transform your performance is one you should consider avoiding,” says Dana Leenheer, Technical Scheme Manager for NSF International’s Certified for Sport® program.

Dana is well aware of the challenges shared by athletes and trainers when choosing a supplement. Prior to joining NSF International, she served as a Drug Reference Program Lead with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. “Dietary supplements are a multibillion dollar industry, and when confronted with aisle after aisle of products, it’s easy to be intimidated by so many choices and grab whatever product seems to be making the best claim.”

To combat some of the confusion that can arise when choosing a supplement, Dana provides a few simple guidelines on what to avoid:

  • It sounds too good to be true. Watch for outrageous claims and meaningless catch phrases. Some supplement labels promise to help make you thinner, smarter, stronger or faster without making any other changes in your lifestyle. Just as with other products, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. In an effort to appeal to health-conscious consumers, many supplements use catch phrases such as “all natural.” Unlike “organic,” the phrase “all natural” is not an official term regulated by the federal government (or any other body, for that matter) and does not offer any guarantee of a product’s safety. Other phrases to watch for include “clinically tested/proven” and “pharmaceutical strength.” There is no such thing as pharmaceutical strength for over-the-counter supplements.
  • It works too well, too fast. Dramatic increases in performance over a short period may be a signal that the supplement you are using contains drug like ingredients that could be harmful to your long-term health. “Strength and endurance take time to build,” Dana says. “There are no shortcuts. If you find your performance is improving at a surprisingly rapid rate (and the only thing you changed in your lifestyle was the supplement) then you may want to consider discontinuing use of that product.”
  • It targets an inappropriate audience. Some ingredients have been scientifically identified as unsafe for certain audiences. Caffeine, for example, has a recommended minimum age of 18 for use. Many other ingredients come with precautions for other specific groups, such as children, people with cardiovascular concerns and pregnant women.
  • It contains secret identity ingredients. Dietary supplement ingredients often have multiple names, called synonyms. Unscrupulous manufacturers may use synonyms to hide unsafe or banned ingredients in plain sight, by labeling them under less-recognized names. For example, you may have heard about the athletically banned stimulant higenamine, but are you aware that it can also be found on labels under the names norcoclaurine or demethylcoclaurine?
  • Taking more than the recommended amount. When it comes to scoops or tablets of a supplement, more is not better, and almost certainly not safer. Taking more than the intended dosage, or serving size listed on the label can cause unwanted or adverse health effects.
  • It lacks independent certification. Look for products that have been Certified for Sport® by NSF International. This certification is the best way to protect yourself against taking potentially harmful supplements because of the rigorous testing and facility inspections that certified products must undergo. Lack of certification doesn’t necessarily mean a product is bad or harmful, but using it is a bit of a guessing game. Knowing the product has been tested for contaminants, such as toxins and athletic banned substances, provides you assurance of a safer product.

“Dietary supplements may help build your performance over time, but remember the word ‘supplement,’ right there in the name,” Dana says. “They are meant to be a single part of an overall lifestyle that includes informed decisions about food, activity and other personal health factors.” While dietary supplements can play a role in overall health, they are not a quick fix or a replacement for a healthy lifestyle. Dana advises doing your research and talking with a trusted health care provider like a registered dietitian before heading to the store. “There’s no substitute for becoming an educated consumer before purchasing your next supplement.”

For more information about dietary supplements, contact our consumer information hotline at 1.800.673.8010 or email info@nsf.org.