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Things You Need to Know About Taking Supplements Safely: Series Introduction

With aisles of vitamins and supplements, it’s easy to grab whichever one makes the best claim or is the cheapest. Our experts help you shop smarter.

The dietary supplement industry is ever evolving and ever growing. Nearly half of Americans and 25% of Europeans report taking a supplement or vitamins. At the same time, the dietary supplement industry is loosely regulated in many countries, so manufacturers don’t have to scientifically prove their products are safe for consumption, or that what is listed on the label is true. It’s therefore important for people who take supplements to make sure they are not at risk for products that are potentially adulterated with harmful ingredients.

This poses risks not only for professional athletes and weekend warriors, but for anyone who takes a workout supplement.

“We’ve all seen vitamins and other supplements that claim to improve your athletic performance,” says John Travis, Technical Leader for NSF’s Certified for Sport® program. “Any supplement promising to miraculously make you stronger or have greater endurance is probably one you should consider avoiding.”

If the claims sound outrageous or too good to be true, they probably are. Catch phrases such as “all natural,” “clinically tested/proven” and “pharmaceutical strength” are not typically regulated by the government and do not offer any guarantee of a supplement’s safety. This is especially true in performance-enhancing supplements where the promise of dramatic athleticism increases over a short time may be a signal that the supplement you are using contains drug-like ingredients that could be harmful to your long-term health.

“It has been reported that people who take athletics very seriously and will do anything to win are more likely to take risks with supplements to improve their strength and performance,” says John. “This puts them at a greater risk for taking supplements that have not been tested.”

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

As an avid runner, John knows firsthand how supplements can support performance and help athletes and “weekend warriors” feel better. But as a chemist specializing in dietary supplements, he also knows that some supplements on the market contain ingredients that can have adverse effects on long-term health.

For those looking for an additional edge, it’s important to remember that it is possible to attain that desired healthy look in a healthy manner. Supplements can be beneficial if you’re aware of which ingredients to avoid and you have checked with your health care provider first.

“Knowing the product has been tested for contaminants, such as toxins or heavy metals, provides you assurance of a safer product,” John says. Be on the lookout for supplements that have 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 in NSF labs.

In this series, we focus on contaminants, pesticides and heavy metals in supplements, as well as athletically banned substances.

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