Over 700 Supplements Were Found to Contain Unlisted Active Ingredients—Here’s How to Buy One You Can Trust

Photo: Stocksy/Michela Ravasio
Few wellness tasks are as utterly mystifying as shopping for vitamins. And now, a survey of the Food and Drug Administration's database of "adulterated" supplements between 2007 and 2016 published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, shows it might be risky, too. The researchers found nearly 800 supplement products that contain active ingredients not listed on the label.

Adding a new supplement or vitamin to your regimen has always been more complicated than walking into a big-name store like GNC and The Vitamin Shoppe and grabbing the first thing you find on the shelf (so. many. options.), but now you'll want to be especially certain you reach for a brand you can trust.

This doesn't mean you need an advanced degree in nutrition studies to navigate the shelves—all it requires is a bit of insider information on what you're actually getting in those little pills. And thankfully, the industry is in the throes of a major shakeup via several Silicon-Valley-type disruptors who are making new options way more transparent—in some cases, literally.

Here are the 3 crucial tips for being a smarter supplement shopper.

get your doctor's advice before shopping for supplements
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1. Talk to a trusted healthcare provider

Can you start a vitamin or supplement routine without first talking to your doctor, midwife, or whomever you see? Absolutely. Should you? Nope.

A trusted healthcare professional can help you identify any specific problems you're having by talking through your lifestyle, how you're feeling, and running tests. Duh—but many people just go it alone.

An M.D. can also be on the lookout for any potential interactions. "Make sure your doctor knows what supplements you're taking if you're on prescription medicines," says Craig Elbert, co-founder of Care/of, a game-changing vitamin delivery service that sends customers personalized packs of vitamins and supplements (roughly $20 a month and up, depending on the exact mix).

2. Determine your vitamin values

Are you the type of person who only wants to take something backed up by years of really clear, strong clinical trials? Or are you open to experimenting with things like adaptogens, which have been used for centuries but aren't necessarily supported by tons of research? A big part of being a supplement consumer is understanding yourself and your wellness values before you go shopping, so you don't get confused (or up-sold) along the way.

"One of the really fascinating things for me as I was building the company and talking to consumers is realizing that there are some people who really just want to take things where there's solid consensus science. Like, you're pregnant, the benefits of folate are well-documented," says Elbert, a former marketing exec. "But then you have some things like milk thistle, where there have been clinical studies but they're not as conclusive. Or holy basil, that's been used for centuries."

Depending on your values, you might opt to go for one ingredient over another. Not sure where you stand? Some brands—including Care/of—offer up quick tests to help you determine what's most important to you when it comes to your supplement regimen. (Think of it like a teen mag personality quiz, only way more informative.)

3. Think ingredients, ingredients, ingredients

Be prepared to read. A lot. That means scouring credible sources to make sure you're staying up on the best research (Elbert suggests the National Institute of Health's site as a good jumping-off point), but also labels.

First up, you're looking for fillers you want to avoid. That's because many supplements contain way more than just the ingredient advertised. "When I got pregnant, I started inspecting everything I was putting into my body with fresh eyes, and in that process I started looking at the vitamins I was taking," says Katerina Schneider, a former Los Angeles-based investor who quit her job to launch Ritual, a seriously Instagram-worthy clear multivitamin for women ($30 for a 60-count bottle, delivered monthly). "I realized some of the ingredients I was avoiding using around the house were in them—things like titanium dioxide and artificial coloring."

Her brand's scientists identified nine essential ingredients that are a) backed by the most robust science and b) things most women lack, like B12, folate, and magnesium—and put them all in a capsule with no synthetic fillers or colorants. According to Schneider, there's no reason why you need to compromise on what makes it into your pills.

It's also important to find out the form and source of every ingredient you actually want to be taking. In the past, that information often simply wasn't available, but high-quality brands are now far less opaque. For example: Where does the vitamin D3 in Ritual's pills come from? Lichens out of the UK, because unlike many brands that use sheep's wool or fish liver oil, these are vegan. Care/of's magnesium? Irish seawater, because they contain more than 70 trace minerals to improve digestion.

If you have questions about particular ingredients or forms, it's (again!) a good idea to talk to your doctor. But if a brand is taking the time to spell out detailed sourcing info, that's probably a good sign they're making an effort to use quality ingredients your body can actually process.

And really, isn't that the whole point?

Originally posted December 30, 2016. Updated October 15, 2018.

Need a brain-boosting supplement? Check out nootropics, AKA the natural Adderall. And herbs are totally having a moment. Here's everything you need to know about adaptogens.

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