Are your supplements safe?

Recently I had my annual check-up, including a review of bloodwork. As you might suspect, I am stunningly healthy. I did find out that my vitamin D level is low. Probably because I slather on sunscreen so faithfully. You have seen my whiteness, yes?

Anyway, my doctor recommended I take a calcium and D3 supplement in addition to the allergy medication, multi-vitamin, and fish oil I already take. Though it’s better to get the bulk of your nutrients through food, supplements can bridge small gaps in your diet quite nicely. But with so many supplements to choose from, how do you know if the brands and types you use are safe and effective?

Thirty eight percent of the population uses some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), including supplements. In 2001, $18 billion was spent on vitamins, minerals, and  herbs. But did you know supplements are monitored more like food than medication? In fact, the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) dictates that supplements can’t share shelf-space with over-the-counter medications. A few other important points about the DSHEA:


  • do not need to register to get FDA approval
  • are responsible for ensuring their product is safe
  • must self-police their product labeling so it is truthful and not misleading


  • intervenes only if a product causes problems once ON THE MARKET. Understand, this means the FDA will only step in and pull a product if enough people suffer enough adverse reactions . . . like death.
  • monitors product labeling, claims, package inserts, and accompanying literature

Supplement labels are required to include certain information.

Buried in the fine print, one of the most important parts of this label is the structure-function claim:

When you need to perform your best, take ginseng.

This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Many of us take supplements to manage or improve our health and vitality, and often view vitamins, minerals, and energy-boosters as a form of medication. The FDA does not. However, in 2007, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the FDA compiled regulations in the form of  Good Manufacturing Processes (GMP), which are designed to ensure stringent record-keeping, quality control, product-testing, quality ingredients and production practices, and increased inspection.

Because the FDA has limited resources, several companies are federally recognized to test supplement ingredients and conduct lab inspections. The following seals of approval indicate supplements have been more closely evaluated:

Examples: Nature’s Way, Country Life, Twin

Examples: Good Neighbor Pharmacy, Sundown

Example: Nature Made

Example: GNC Nutritional Supplements

In addition to checking labels for these recognized seals of approval, the FDA offers these tips for savvy supplement consumers:

  • consider your total diet when adding supplements
  • check with your medical provider before taking supplements: some supplements interact with prescription medications, have adverse effects on certain medical conditions, or can cause complications during surgery
  • inform your doctor of any supplements you are taking
  • ask yourself: does it sound too good to be true?
  • don’t assume “natural” means healthy

The FDA website offers a wealth of information to help consumers educate themselves about supplements, as well as resources for researching health information. Check out their Tips for the Savvy Supplement User. For more information about the FDA’s role in supplement oversight, check out their Consumer Information page. Finally, the Dietary Supplement Q & A page, has the answers to commonly asked supplement questions.

So, any surprises here? I had a vague understanding that the supplement industry didn’t have much oversight or regulation, but learning the specifics at the 2012 Fitness and Health Bloggers Conference was eye-opening. Much of this information came from a wonderful presentation by Monika Nuffer, PharmD, Clinical Pharmacist / Herbal Specialist, Integrative Medicine at University of Colorado Hospital, University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.


2 thoughts on “Are your supplements safe?

  1. Shawn says:

    I have the same vitamin d deficiency and I live in the South! Too much work indoors is my problem I guess.

    Wow…if you are going to supplement that much calcium (if the picture is what you are taking) you may want to consider taking a higher dose of magnesium to balance that out. You probably already get your maximum amount of calcium through the foods you eat and the water you drink.

    Vitamin d is fat soluble, so you’d want to take it with a meal that has some sort of fat in it. Calcium needs vit d for absorption, but not vice-versa. I used to take a lot of calcium like that, but it caused kidney stones (if you think back pain sucks) and exacerbated my hyperthyroidism. Arterial plaque is also partially made up of excess calcium in the blood. The magnesium supplement will keep the calcium in solution for excretion and the added benefit is, it helps eliminate muscle cramps. I started running marathons and magnesium makes all the difference. Remember calcium contracts muscles, magnesium relaxes them. I use magnesium taurate, helps you absorb the most elemental magnesium without acting like a laxative.

    Oh yeah…if you have a chance, check out the book, The Magnesium Miracle.

    Oh and for the back pain problems…it’s probably caused by inflammation. Check out buying bulk turmeric and then adding freshly ground peppercorns in a 2:1 ratio (turmeric:pepper) then put in gel caps yourself, it’s a ton cheaper to do it this way.

    Of course, I’m no physician…so you’ll want to talk to your doc about things like this first. Magnesium can be a problem if you have per-existing kidney issues. Just thought I would pass along what I discovered through self experimentation.

    Great blog BTW. 🙂

    • wishfit says:

      Wow! I can tell you’ve done some research. Thanks for the tips. I’m taking the low end of the range my doctor recommended, and feeling great so far.

      I appreciate the time it took for you to comment, and the helpful info you included.

      Thanks for reading!

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