Supplements Buying Guide

Today’s supplement market is very oversaturated. There are thousands of companies all around the globe, each one fighting for something:

To get a piece of the pie.

The good news is that we, as consumers, get to choose between a wide range of products, based on budget, preferences, and convenience. The bad news is, many of the products on the market today are of low quality.

You see, for any supplement to be effective, it needs to have the right ingredients in their appropriate doses. Quality control organizations such as the FDA in the states require manufacturers to list each ingredient and its dosage on the label. But there’s a problem with that.

The Proprietary Blend

In a perfect world, supplement manufacturers would put only high-quality ingredients in the appropriate doses within their products. They would then list everything on the label, and that would be that.

But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in one where the market is filled with profit-oriented people who couldn’t care less about delivering value to their customers.

To make a high-quality supplement, manufacturers would need to invest more money in research and production. But, as you can imagine, for companies to maintain competitive prices, they would have to cut their profit margins too thin, so they pick a different route:

They include the effective ingredients (often accompanied by filler junk), slap a fancy label and put everything under a proprietary blend. And here’s why:

The FDA requires all supplement manufacturers to put all of the ingredients they use on the label along with their respective doses. But, if some or all of the ingredients are part of a proprietary blend, they are not required to list the quantity for individual component (source).

You can see where the problem comes.

Manufacturers would be free to reduce the doses for active ingredients and instead put low-quality, low-cost fillers, sweeteners, and dyes, thus allowing them to sell relatively cheap products at substantial profit margins.

This might not be the case for all products that take advantage of a proprietary blend (or several), but it gets you wondering:

  • Am I getting the right ingredients in the appropriate doses?
  • Can I trust a company that does this?
  • Am I getting any bang for my buck?

Take, for example, a pre-workout supplement. While there are many ingredients a pre-workout could have, only a handful have been backed by science as performance enhancers. And if all of them are listed in a proprietary blend, how would you know that the dosing is appropriate?

Are you getting enough citrulline malate? How about beta-alanine? How much caffeine is in each serving? Ah, who cares. As long as the proprietary blend has a fancy name along the lines of, “Performance enhancing complex.”

You could be getting pitiful doses of each critical ingredient without even knowing it.

With that said, manufacturers often claim that they use the proprietary blend to stop their competition from learning the exact formula they are applying for a given product. Whether this holds any water is up for debate. But, come on, they’re not making Coca-Cola.

So, how do you get over the majority of bad products and buy something that is worth the money? There’s one approach that works well.

Third Party Testing

Regulatory agencies have been paying more and more attention to the dietary supplement industry. In the states alone, the FDA has shut down multiple manufacturers for violations of manufacturing laws and many more companies have been served with hefty fines.

In the 2014-15 period, the Department of Justice brought criminal charges against more than a hundred large supplement names for including ingredients not listed on the label, or for making health and disease claims not supported by scientific research (source).

Thanks to these legal actions, supplement manufacturers have become more careful with the manufacturing and labeling of their products in efforts to avoid potential fines, or worse, being shut down for good. For that reason, US-based manufacturers should be very familiar with the Code of Federal Regulations (title 21, part 111) and comply with the guidelines.

As you see now, testing is critical for ensuring that any product on the market is unadulterated, and of high quality.

Dietary supplement certifications are a good way for us, as consumers, to find safer and more effective product and raw ingredients on the market. These certifications also ensure that the products we buy do not contain banned or dangerous substances.

According to this source, there are as many as 284 banned substances that could be harmful to our health or lead to failed drug tests in athletes. The issue here is, these substances are more widespread than we would like to believe.

For example, in this paper from 2017, the researchers found that oxilofrine, a substance that has never been approved in the US as a prescription drug or dietary supplement, was present in fourteen different brands (of twenty-seven that were tested).

The Stamp of Approval

In the United States, the NSF stamp of approval on a given product ensures that it is of high-quality, that the ingredients are accurately identified and listed on the label, and that there are no unsafe or banned substances.

Plus, the NSF certification is not a one-time event. Testing of the facilities, manufacturing process and end product happens on an ongoing basis to ensure that the same standard of quality remains over time. Should the supplement fail to cover any of the NSF criteria, the product could lose its certification.

USP is another well-known and respected regulatory agency that operates all over the world, namely in big countries such as China, India, and Brazil, as well as some smaller ones such as Switzerland and Indonesia.

Informed-Choice is an international certification program that has a plethora of certified brands under its wing. They put each product under rigorous testing to ensure the quality and safety of the customer.

There are more agencies and certification programs out there, but the large players are the three we covered.

No matter where you live in the world, you should always pick supplements that have been tested and approved not just by your local administration, but by unbiased, third-party agencies. After all, if a supplement manufacturer has nothing to hide and wants to deliver value to their customer, reaching out and applying for certification should be high on their priority list.

In today’s day and age, with customers becoming more informed and demanding a higher quality for their foods, drinks, and supplements, companies either need to get with the program or risk losing their business.

The Importance of Effective, Science-Backed Ingredients, and Appropriate Dosing

Unfortunately, the supplement industry is ripe for marketing hype and fancy labeling. Lots of manufacturers out there understand that and want to take advantage of the situation. They want to have us believe that every ingredient on their product’s label serves a purpose.

“Oh, this is for that, and that right there is for this, and blah, blah, blah.”

The truth is, for most of the supplements out there, there is just a handful of useful and science-backed (having lots of large, controlled trials) ingredients that work. Everything else is irrelevant. Remove the right half of ingredients from the product, and it’ll still be just as effective.

Buying supplements from certified brands helps us avoid this somewhat, but it’s not the whole story because most manufacturers include lots of ingredients to make their label more prominent and their products seemingly more effective. And just because a given substance is not banned or dangerous to our health, doesn’t mean it’s providing any benefit to us.

Furthermore, even if a given ingredient has been proven to be effective, the dosage matters a lot. For example, citrulline malate is one of the few elements in pre-workout supplements that work. But for it to be effective, you need a hefty dose (source).

Most pre-workouts out there have CM on their label, but the grams per serving are often pitiful. You’d need to take multiple scoops to get enough of it. And if citrulline is under a proprietary blend, you can forget about getting enough of it.