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Selecting Dietary and Nutritional Supplements

Learn what to look for when purchasing your next supplement.

If you’ve shopped for supplements recently, you’ve probably noticed that the shelves are filled with many different types of products. While the array of choices may seem overwhelming at first, product labels can help guide your decision. Some key things to look for include:

  • Outrageous Claims. Some supplements promise to help make us thinner, smarter, stronger or faster without making any other changes in lifestyle. Just as with other products, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Catch Phrases. In an effort to appeal to health-conscious consumers, many supplements claim to be “all natural.” Unlike “organic,” the phrase “all natural” is not an official term that is regulated by the federal government and does not offer any guarantee as to 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.

Claims of Certification

Two types of product certification are available to companies that manufacture dietary or nutritional supplements.

  • NSF Certification to NSF/ANSI 173. This American National Standard helps confirm that what’s on the label is in the product and that the product contains no unsafe levels of contaminants such as heavy metals, pesticides and herbicides. Products certified to this standard bear the traditional NSF mark.
  • Certified For Sport®. Products with this certification have not only been certified for compliance with NSF/ANSI 173, but they’ve also been tested for banned substances, which is particularly important for college and professional athletes. Products certified under this program will bear the NSF Certified for Sport® mark.

Claim of Registration

Manufacturers of dietary and nutritional supplements can also have their production facilities independently registered.

  • GMP Registration. GMP registration doesn’t apply to individual products, but rather confirms that a manufacturer’s production facility is observing good manufacturing practices established for their industry. GMPs are a series of guidelines that address aspects of production and testing that can impact the quality of a product, such as recordkeeping, personnel qualifications, sanitation and cleanliness and equipment maintenance. Although no testing is performed by the auditor on samples of individual products during a GMP audit, such testing is available under NSF/ANSI 173 (see above).

While dietary supplements can play an important role in overall health, they are not a quick fix or a replacement for a healthy lifestyle, so be sure to do your research and talk with a trusted health care provider before heading to the store. There’s no substitute for becoming an educated consumer before purchasing your next supplement.

NSF TIP: You can check out the NSF listings page to see if a supplement is NSF certified.

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