Use our 10-point evaluation checklist to choose supplements that are effective and safe. These simple steps help you get the best results for your money.
Unless you have the knowledge of a biologist, chemist, nutritionist, and clinical researcher rolled into one, it’s not so easy to know if a nutritional supplement will be helpful or even contain what it says on the label.
While we can’t claim these professional credentials, we have spent a lot of time over the last few decades learning what goes into a good supplement.
Based on that knowledge, we’ve created a 10-point nutritional supplement evaluation checklist.
Taking this approach will make it easier for you to find brand names you can trust to give you the benefits you need.
Use our 10-point evaluation checklist to buy any kind of nutritional supplement products, such as:
- Those that contain single ingredients, multiple ingredients, or proprietary blends.
- Those that include vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs, or phytonutrients.
- Those that focus on general health or target a specific area like brain, heart, or joint health.
Keep two goals clearly in mind as you work through the ten steps below.
You want supplements that work and you want good value for your money.
1. Look for Quality Assurance
There are organizations and seals of quality that can help you find beneficial nutritional supplements.
First, look for a product that has been manufactured at a Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) facility.
A GMP facility must comply with high standards, the same standards mandated by the US Food and Drug Administration for pharmaceutical manufacturers. (1)
This helps assure that these supplements are free from contamination and are accurately labeled.
Labeling discrepancies happen more often than you might think.
A study of 55 brands of vitamin D supplements found they contained between 9% and 146% of what was listed on the label! (2)
Next, you want to know that the raw materials of a supplement are of high quality.
One way of doing that is to confirm that the manufacturer has a Certificate of Analysis (COA) for each ingredient.
Having a COA means that the raw material is tested by an independent lab and deemed to be contaminant-free. (3)
Another good sign is for a product to be certified by a respected third-party quality assurance organization.
These organizations verify that a facility complies with good manufacturing practices and takes proper steps to ensure product safety and accurate labeling.
You can find supplements that meet quality standards here:
- NSF International
- US Pharmacopeia
- Consumer Lab (must be a paid member to access reports)
- Informed Choice (sports nutrition products)
Or look for these quality assurance seals on product labels.
2. Look for Therapeutic Dosages
The minimum amount of a nutrient necessary to provide any real benefit is called its therapeutic dosage.
With single-ingredient supplements, the amount contained in a serving should be clearly stated on the label.
In a multi-ingredient supplement such as a multivitamin, there are many nutrients and they should be labeled separately.
But many supplements contain several ingredients combined in a proprietary blend.
Supplements using proprietary formulas are required to reveal only the ingredients in the formula and the total amount of all combined ingredients.
They do not have to list the amount of each ingredient separately.
Companies claim they do this to protect their formulations from their competitors, and this may be a legitimate argument.
But less-than-reputable companies hide behind this claim to conceal the fact that there isn’t enough of any one ingredient to do you any good.
Supplements that contain ingredients can work synergistically — where each ingredient enhances the benefit of the others — provided they are developed by knowledgeable researchers that know what they are doing.
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For example, the absorption of turmeric supplements is greatly enhanced by the addition of a compound found in black pepper.
Unfortunately, some companies intentionally add just a miniscule amount of an ingredient so that they can legally include it on the label.
✓Curcumin + Turmeric Supplements See Amazon.com for best selection and value
This is a common practice in both the supplement and cosmetic industries and is known as fairy dusting. Avoid supplements like these.
Take a look at the label below.
It contains a lot of ingredients that are not present at a therapeutic dosage.
This does not help you!
Also, notice the proprietary blend (here called “synergistic and proprietary formulation”).
This kind of labeling is an excuse to use small and ineffective amounts of ingredients in a supplement.
✓DHA Supplements See Amazon.com for best selection and value
For example, the recommended daily dose for just one of these ingredients, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), is 1,000 mg.
This is significantly more than the 692 mg of all the ingredients in the formulation.
More on Be Brain Fit:
Choosing Memory Supplements That Work
3. Look for “Other Ingredients” on the Label
Besides listing the active ingredients, supplements are required by law to list all inactive ingredients. (6)
These ingredients include binders, coatings, colorings, and flavorings.
Some are needed to hold the supplement together and allow it to be easily swallowed.
But others are unnecessary and unhealthy additives.
You’ll find these in the small print at the bottom of the label listed as “other ingredients.”
Don’t use this as an excuse not to read it. This area can contain important information.
Above is an example of a vitamin supplement label.
This one contains sugar (sucrose), artificial flavors (Yellow 6), and artificial colors.
These ingredients contribute nothing to a effective and healthy supplement.
Also, look for an expiration date for your supplement.
The date may be on the label or the bottom of the bottle.
While not required by law, this is an indication of the supplement’s potency.
(Just the fact that there is an expiration date is a good sign.)
Lastly, you may find other cautionary statements on the label such as “free of soy,” “contains shellfish,” or “keep out of reach of children.”
If you are ordering supplements online, be wary of any product that doesn’t have a copy of its full label on its website, listing all active and inactive ingredients.
Some brands discuss (and show) only key ingredients, so you can’t know exactly what is in their product until you have a bottle in your hand.
4. Look for Ingredients Proven to Work
You want to know why a particular ingredient is in a supplement.
You want to know whether it has been clinically proven to support health.
Some companies do this work for you and provide links to outside studies on their product’s ingredients.
You can always go to reputable third-party sources to see if there are any proven benefits for a particular vitamin, mineral, herb, amino acid, or other natural substance.
Here are a few we regularly use in our research:
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
- University of Maryland Medical Center Complementary and Alternative Medicine Guide
- University of Michigan Integrative Medicine
Occasionally you will find a supplement containing a patented ingredient with clinical studies to support its claim of effectiveness.
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Also, be sure your supplement contains the optimal form of its active ingredient(s).
For instance, vitamin B12 supplements commonly contain cyanocobalamin.
This form of B12 is not well absorbed and actually produces a small amount of cyanide in the body. (7)
✓Vitamin B12 Supplements See Amazon.com for best selection and value
This is the sort of information you can find at the sites mentioned above and, of course, throughout Be Brain Fit!
5. Beware of Most Private Label Supplements
Many supplements on the market are sold as private label brands.
Private label manufacturers create generic supplements for others to sell.
Anyone can buy the rights to market and sell these formulas.
These businesses are basically just marketers who rarely have expertise in nutritional supplements.
They exist to separate you from your money.
How can you tell if a supplement is a disreputable private label product?
There is no single way to know for sure, but we think you know hype and deception when you see it.
Signs to watch out for include a website that has no phone number or physical address, does not allow guarantee or returns, or makes outlandish claims of cure, relief or industry standing.
For example, a surprising number of brands claim that their supplement is #1 in the market for treating such-and-such a condition.
But they can’t all be number one, can they?
Look for misspellings and obvious grammatical errors on labels and websites.
This is often a sign that a product is not legit.
Is the brand consumer-friendly?
Here’s a screenshot from a private label brand’s website of a guarantee offered for its supplement.
Perhaps they were trying to be clever, but it’s not funny when your money and health are at stake.
Read #4 and #5 in the image below to see what we mean.
6. Cost vs Value
With many things in life, you get what you pay for.
But that is not always the case with supplements.
If a product has a huge marketing budget or uses multilevel marketing distribution, that will drive up its cost with no additional benefit to you.
Look for a company that puts more money into the research and development (R&D) of safe and effective products, instead of marketing.
Some companies will discuss their R&D on their websites — this is a good sign.
As with buying anything, most nutritional supplements will be of mediocre quality, some will be worthless (or even dangerous), and only a few will stand out as excellent.
You can pay as much or as little for supplements as you want.
✓Natural Multivitamins See Amazon.com for best selection and value
A quick look at Amazon reveals that you could spend as little as $3 or more than $100 for a bottle of multivitamins!
First, skip the bottom-of-the-barrel products.
We’re all for getting value for our money and we’re sure you are too.
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But with your health at stake, this is not the time to go for bargain brands.
You can skip those in the $100 range too.
Keep in mind that some products look like a bargain until you realize that one bottle, taken as directed, will last only a week or two.
Pay attention to cost per day rather than cost per bottle.
7. Herbal Remedies: Standardized Extracts vs Whole Herbs
There is another question to be answered when buying herbal supplements.
Should you look for standardized extracts or whole herbs?
Both sides of this argument have valid positions.
✓Antidepressant Supplements See Amazon.com for best selection and value
Those in favor of standardized extracts point out that it’s impossible to know how effective an herbal remedy is unless it contains standardized active ingredients.
An herbal remedy with standardized ingredients contains a specific assayed percentage of what is thought to be the active ingredient in the herb.
On the other hand, traditional herbalists prefer the use of whole herbs, also called full spectrum extracts.
With full spectrum extracts, there is thought to be greater benefit from the synergistic effects of the hundreds of phytonutrients contained in the herb itself.
Below is a label for a Gingko biloba supplement, one of the most popular herbal remedies in the world.
This particular product contains both standardized and full spectrum extracts.
It is particularly important when buying herbal supplements and remedies to buy from a reputable company with a strong background in herbal medicine that takes quality control seriously.
In 2015, it was discovered that herbal supplements sold by Walmart, Target, Walgreens, and GNC contained very little of the amount listed on the label. (10)
✓Ginkgo Supplements See Amazon.com for best selection and value
In fact, 80% of the products tested contained NONE of the herb being sold.
Herbs tested included valerian, St. John’s wort, and ginkgo.
What they did contain was cheap fillers, including houseplants.
In addition to being worthless, these products were also potentially dangerous, especially to people with allergies.
8. Avoid Supplements That Might Be Unsafe
Just because a supplement is “natural” doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily safe.
Every year, 23,000 people wind up in an emergency room due to bad reactions to supplements.
More than half of these ER visits are caused by stimulant supplements taken to lose weight or increase energy. (11)
Contrary to what many people think, the FDA does not “approve” supplements or test them for safety. (12)
Alarmingly, supplement safety largely relies on an honor system.
It’s the responsibility of the company to make sure a supplement is safe before it’s put on the market.
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However, the FDA does have the authority to remove a supplement from the market if it comes to their attention that it poses a safety issue.
There are many supplements that are not inherently dangerous, but may be wrong for you.
This is especially true if you take any prescription medications.
Some supplements do not mix safely with drugs.
The popular natural antidepressant St. John’s wort is known to interact negatively with over 800 medications! (13)
5-HTP is an example of a supplement that should not be mixed with certain other supplements.
It can be dangerous when mixed with herbs that are natural relaxants or supplements that work by increasing serotonin levels. (14)
If you have any doubts about mixing drugs and supplements, talk to your doctor, pharmacist, or appropriate health care professional.
In the meantime, use Drugs.com free online interaction checker.
Lastly, taking the wrong form of some otherwise safe nutritional supplements may make you sick.
For example, magnesium is a common mineral that is available in several supplemental forms — oxide, citrate, threonate, glycinate, and more.
✓Magnesium Supplements See Amazon.com for best selection and value
The magnesium sulfate found in Epsom salts is great for easing the pain of aching feet when added to a foot bath, but when taken internally, it can cause dramatic diarrhea and disrupt your electrolyte balance, leading to a potentially serious condition known as hypermagnesemia. (15)
There are dozens of official FDA reports of magnesium sulfate triggering brain fog, short-term memory loss, amnesia, and blackouts. (16)
9. Company Reputation Is a Major Factor
This may be the most important consideration of all.
In making a good supplement buying decision, the importance of a company’s reputation and integrity cannot be stressed enough.
Buying decisions are ultimately based on trust.
We trust that our food is safe, our cars won’t catch on fire, and our kids’ toys are lead-free.
But how do you know for sure?
Find Out What Others Are Saying, But Be Cautious and Critical
A good way to know what customers think of a product is to check out social media sites like Facebook, retail outlets like Amazon, or health forums.
If a company has an authentically loyal customer base and raving fans, you’re on the right track.
If a brand has also earned the respect of other health professionals, you know you’ve found a winner!
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As always though, pay attention and be critical of what you read, see and hear.
Watch for signs that the recommendations and reviews you see are not legitimate.
Positive reviews and comments may be bought or otherwise incentivized by the supplement seller or other interested parties.
✓Phosphatidylserine (PS) Supplements See Amazon.com for best selection and value
Unfortunately, this is often seen on Facebook and Amazon.
Amazon in particular can be a goldmine of information, but it is very important to know the situation of the commenters.
Are they getting free products in return for their supposedly unbiased review?
Who’s behind the free products? Who are the people getting the free products?
Are the reviewers verified customers of the product? (Look for the Verified Purchase label.)
If you see lots of rave comments posted within a short time span and there are very few by verified customers, these comments are probably not legitimate … and neither is the product.
Better Business Bureau ratings can sometimes turn up useful information about a brand or supplement.
Do a Google search and just skim through the results.
It’s surprising what can be learned in a few minutes.
For instance, some supplement companies, especially those that target senior health problems like memory loss, have complaints or class action suits filed against them.
If you have reason to be suspicious, search for “class action suit” and the name of the company or the supplement in question.
Currently, a search for “Procera AVH class action suit” reveals that a class action suit was filed against this popular brain supplement for making false claims. (17)
Check Out the Company Website
You can learn a lot about a company by visiting its website. Here are some things to look for:
- Notice your first impression of the website. It should look professional and not overly salesy, and should leave you with a good feeling.
- Read the “about us” page. Who are the people behind the company name? What are their credentials? Are there any scientists, herbalists, doctors, or researchers on board? Is there a physical location listed? There should be.
- Check out the customer service options. Some companies hide behind an email address. A reputable company will offer other contact option such as a toll-free phone number and/or live chat. You should be able to talk with a knowledgeable customer service representative who is respectful and handles problems efficiently.
- What is the guarantee? The longer the guarantee period, the better. It benefits you and shows that the company has faith in its products. Check the guarantee carefully for “weasel clauses.” These are the ways disreputable brands make it almost impossible to get a refund, no matter what. These might include returning the original packaging, not accepting opened bottles, or not accepting returns before 30 days … or after 30 days. Grrr. But some companies accept opened items and have a 60-day or even a full-year guarantee. Now we’re talking!
- Is there mention of the company’s GMP production facility, R&D department, or Certificate of Analysis for raw materials? These are all good factors that place the company a cut or two above most others.
- Is there a mission statement or a written commitment to customers? This at least gives the appearance of caring and very few companies have these.
If a supplement company doesn’t have a website, that is a big red flag.
You can imagine why they are making themselves hard to find.
Avoid them, period.
10. Look at Independent Lab Results
Lastly, you can use independent research labs to do much of your due diligence for you.
Labdoor.com buys popular brand supplements off the shelf, then sends them to an FDA-registered laboratory for analysis.
Each supplement is tested for label accuracy, product purity, nutritional value, ingredient safety, and projected efficacy.
They have currently tested over 20 categories of supplements and are adding more all the time.
You can create an account and access their reports for free.
Labdoor.com lets you sort their results by both “highest quality” and “best value” — a nice feature that calculates cost per serving for you.
ConsumerLab.com offers a similar service, but is a paid subscription that currently costs $39 per year.
Choosing a Good Nutritional Supplement: The Bottom Line
When buying supplements, “buyer beware” is the operative term.
But our 10-point evaluation checklist has worked well for us and we think it will do the same for you.
Just by doing some homework and using a little common sense, you can turn the time you spend into a boon for your health and wallet.