April 2021

· 4 min read

5 Things You Need to Know About Taking Supplements Safely

When browsing aisles of vitamins and supplements, it’s easy to grab whichever product makes the best claim. Learn how to take supplements safely.
Woman taking natural supplement with lemon water - 5 Things You Need to Know About Taking Supplements Safely

We’ve all seen vitamins and other supplements that claim to make you feel invigorated, boost your immune system, sharpen your brain or improve your athletic performance. And in these COVID-19 times, many people are more interested in taking vitamins to stay healthy. But is it that easy?

Boosting immunity may not be as simple as buying and taking supplements. “Any supplement promising to miraculously make you stronger or healthier is probably one you should consider avoiding,” says John Travis, Technical Leader for NSF’s Certified for Sport® program. As a chemist with more than 25 years of experience in analyzing dietary supplements, John delivers a powerful message, especially at a time when supplement use is at an all-time high.

More than 77% of adults in the U.S. – that’s more than 170 million people -- say they take supplements, according to a recent Council for Responsible Nutrition study. That’s a record number, up from 68% in 2015.

“Dietary supplements are a multi-billion-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,” John says.

To combat that confusion, he recommends five things for taking supplements safely:

1. Do your homework

The first step is understanding what vitamins and other supplements are and what’s in them. In addition to vitamins, supplements can contain minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids, enzymes and many other ingredients. Dietary supplements — a supplement to your diet that may address a deficiency or add balance — come in a variety of forms, including tablets, capsules, gummies and powders. Be aware that drinks and bars may be labeled as supplements, but really are not since the U.S. FDA considers them foods. Popular supplements and vitamins include vitamins D and B12, minerals like calcium and iron, botanicals such as echinacea and garlic, and products like glucosamine, probiotics and fish oils. Always check with your health care provider before starting any new supplements.

2. Be cautious

Watch out for outrageous claims and meaningless catch phrases. Some supplement labels promise to help make you thinner, smarter, stronger or faster. Supplements are aptly named as they supplement the diet and do not replace a healthy diet and lifestyle. Just as with other products, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. There are no magic nutrient cure-alls. Catch phrases such as “all natural,” “clinically tested/proven” and “pharmaceutical strength” are not regulated by the federal government and do not offer any guarantee of a supplement’s safety. This is especially true in performance-enhancing supplements where dramatic increases 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. And since the pandemic’s start, the FDA has sent several warning letters to companies that claimed their products can prevent, treat or cure COVID-19, according to CRN.

"Knowing the product has been tested for contaminants, such as toxins or heavy metals, provides you assurance of a safer product."

3. Make sure the vitamin is for you

Some supplements are formulated specifically for certain age groups or medical conditions and could be ineffective at best or harmful at worst if you are not in that group. Scientists have also identified some ingredients as potentially unsafe for certain audiences. People have very individual responses to caffeine, for example. Most experts, including NSF, recommend consuming less than 200 mg per serving. Many other ingredients benefit specific groups, such as children, people with heart issues and pregnant women.

4. Take the recommended dose

When it comes to scoops or tablets of a supplement, more is not better, and almost certainly not safer. Taking more than the recommended amount or serving size listed on the label could be bad for your health. Always read the labels carefully and consult your health care provider with any questions.

5. Select only certified supplements

Beware of supplements that lack independent certification. Certification by accredited third-party organizations, like NSF, is the easiest and best way to know that what is on the label is what is in the bottle and to protect yourself against taking supplements with potentially harmful or undeclared ingredients. NSF certified products have been made in facilities inspected by NSF and they have been tested by NSF in NSF labs.

“Though a lack of certification doesn’t necessarily mean a product is bad or harmful, using it is a bit of a guessing game,” John says. “Knowing the product has been tested for contaminants, such as toxins or heavy metals, provides you assurance of a safer product.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S.’s top infectious disease expert on the pandemic and head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, also warns that dietary supplements claiming to be “so-called immune boosting supplements” can be harmful if not taken safely. However, Dr. Fauci does recommend vitamins C and D to help keep your immune system healthy and he takes them both. “If you are deficient in vitamin D, that does have an impact on your susceptibility to infection,” Dr. Fauci says.

“It’s important to keep in mind that while supplements can play a role in overall health, they are not a quick fix or a replacement for a healthy lifestyle,” John says. He advises doing your research and talking with a trusted health care provider or a registered dietitian before heading to the store.

“There’s no substitute for becoming an educated consumer before purchasing your next supplement,” John says.

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

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