How to Choose Nutritional Supplements That Work

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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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 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.

Using our approach will make it easier for you to find brands you can trust to give you the benefits you need.

How to Get the Most From Our 10-Point Supplement Evaluation Checklist

Use our checklist to buy any kind of nutritional supplements, such as:

  • Those that contain single ingredients, multiple ingredients, or proprietary ingredient 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.

Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) Facility

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)

Certificate of Analysis (COA) for Each Ingredient

Next, you want to know that the raw materials from which a supplement is made 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)

Contaminants found in supplements include mold, fungus, pesticides, lead, arsenic, mercury, and even traces of prescription drugs. (45)

quality assurance - GMP qualification and Certificate of Analysis
Here’s an example of a company that cares about quality. Their products are GMP-certified, plus they publish their Certificate of Analysis.

Third-Party Quality Assurance Organization

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 these high quality standards here:

Or look for these quality assurance seals on product labels.

supplement quality assurance seals
Look for supplements that have one of these quality assurance seals on the label.

2. Look for Therapeutic Dosages

You want to be sure that any supplement you take provides a therapeutic dosage — the minimum amount of a nutrient necessary to provide any real benefit.

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 ingredients combined.

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 labeling to conceal the fact that there isn’t enough of any one ingredient to do you any good.

Supplements that contain multiple ingredients can work synergistically — where each ingredient enhances the benefit of the others — provided they are developed by knowledgeable researchers who know what they are doing.

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 a minuscule amount of an ingredient so that they can legally include it on the label.

This is a common practice in both the supplement and cosmetic industries and is known as fairy dusting.

The label below is a good example of fairy dusting.

It contains several ingredients that are not present in a therapeutic dosage.

nutritional supplement label
Here is a good example of what you do NOT want to find in a supplement. This label exhibits fairy dusting and a proprietary blend to mask ineffective dosages.

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.

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3. Look for “Other Ingredients” on the Label

Besides listing the active ingredients, supplements are required by law to list all inactive ingredients. (6)

Binders, Coatings, Colors, and Flavorings

These ingredients include binders, coatings, colors, 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.”

vitamin supplement label
The “other ingredients” area on a label is usually in very small print.

Above is an example of a vitamin supplement label.

This one contains sugar (sucrose), artificial colors (such as Yellow 6), and artificial flavors.

These ingredients contribute nothing to an effective and healthy supplement.

Expiration Date

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.)

Precautions and Full Disclosure

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.

references for supporting studies
An excerpt of some of the references for a nutritional supplement.

Some companies do this work for you and provide links to outside studies.

You can always use 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 reputable third-party resources we regularly use in our research:

Patented Ingredients

Occasionally you will find a supplement containing a patented ingredient with clinical studies to support its claim of effectiveness.

Examples of these are the cognitive enhancers Cognizin (derived from citicoline) and Cereboost (American ginseng).

This is the sort of information you can find at the sites mentioned above and, of course, in the supplement articles throughout Be Brain Fit.

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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 often run by marketers who rarely have expertise in nutritional supplements.

They exist to separate you from your money.

Disreputable Signs

How can you tell if a supplement is a suspicious private label product?

There is no single way to know for sure, but we think you will know untrustworthy products if you review them closely.

Signs of deception, hype, and unscrupulous intent to watch out for include:

  • a website that has no phone number or physical address
  • a brand that does not allow guarantee or returns
  • a company that makes outlandish claims of cure, relief, or industry standing (how many supplements can be #1 in the market?)
  • misspellings and obvious grammatical errors on labels and websites
  • policies that are not consumer-friendly

Here’s a screenshot from a private label brand’s website of its supplement guarantee.

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.

supplement guarantee
This supplement guarantee is clearly not consumer-friendly.

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 signs that a company invests in 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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

They believe there is greater benefit from the synergistic effects of the untold number of phytonutrients contained in the whole herb.

Below is a label for a Ginkgo biloba supplement, one of the most popular herbal remedies in the world.

This particular product contains both standardized and full spectrum extracts.

ginkgo biloba supplement label
This product label shows amounts (in mg) of the whole herb and the percentages of standardized active ingredients.

Buy From a Company with a History of Herbal Supplements

It is particularly important when buying herbal supplements and remedies to buy from a reputable company with a strong background in herbal medicine.

This usually indicates that quality control is taken 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. (9)

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.

More recently, the US Government Accounting Office reported that one ginkgo supplement they tested contained no ginkgo whatsoever. (10)

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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. (11)

More than half of these ER visits are caused by stimulant supplements taken to lose weight or increase energy.

The US FDA Does Not Approve Supplements

Contrary to what many people think, the US Food and Drug Administration 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 they put it on the market.

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.

Some Supplements Do Not Mix Safely With Drugs (or Other Supplements)

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.

The popular natural antidepressant St. John’s wort is known to interact negatively with nearly 500 medications! (13)

5-HTP is an example of a supplement that should not be randomly mixed with 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, you can check any combinations of drugs and supplements with one of these reputable online interaction checkers.

Caution: Certain Forms of Some Supplements Can Be Dangerous

Lastly, taking certain forms 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.

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

A good way to know what customers think of a product is to check out:

  • social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, or Pinterest
  • retail outlets like Amazon
  • 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 reliable health professionals, you know you’ve found a winner!

Be Cautious and Critical

As always though, pay attention to 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.

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?

Did the reviewers actually buy and use 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.

Other Sources to Investigate

Better Business Bureau ratings can sometimes turn up useful information about a brand or supplement.

Just do a Google search and 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.

Check Out the Company Website

You can learn a lot about a company by visiting its website.

If a supplement company doesn’t have a website, that is a huge red flag.

You can imagine why they are making themselves hard to find.

Avoid them, period.

How to Determine a Company’s Integrity

First Impression of Website

Take stock of your first impression of the website.

It should look professional and not overly salesy, and should leave you with a good feeling.

“About Us” Page

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.

Customer Service Options

Check out the customer service options.

Some companies hide behind just an email address.

A reputable company will offer other contact options 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.

Guarantee

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!

Indicators of Quality

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.

Mission Statement

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.

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 dozens of categories of supplements and are adding more all the time.

You can create an account and access their reports for free.

ConsumerLab.com offers a similar paid subscription service that costs around $50 per year.

Choosing a Good Nutritional Supplement: Take the Next Step

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 evaluating into a boon for both your health and wallet.

The right supplement can jump-start your way to a mentally sharper, happier, and more productive you.

Recommended: One of the best ways to support brain and body health is to feed your body the best nutrition possible.

This means eating real food (rather than processed food) AND taking high-quality supplements to make up for any nutrient shortcomings.

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