Choosing the Best Supplements to Take

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Filed Under: Nutritional Support, How to Use Supplements
Last Reviewed 02/15/2014

Choosing the Best Supplements to Take

With thousands of nutritional supplements available, choosing the best supplements to take can be nothing short of overwhelming. It’s not only a question of the best supplements to take, but knowing how to identify which product is safest and most effective.

It can be easy to get sucked in by low prices and marketing promises. That’s why I put together this list of things to look for to help you choose the best supplements to take:

Nutrient Form

Read labels carefully to see what nutrient forms are included. These are listed in parentheses after the name of the nutrient.

For some nutrients, there’s no special form to look for. Any kind of Vitamin C, for example, synthetic or natural, is acceptable. Vitamin E and beta-carotene, however, are another story. For these two ingredients, the natural forms are definitely superior.

Minerals also come in various forms. Elemental minerals, such as those found in soil, are not readily absorbed, so manufacturers bind them to amino acids or other substances that our bodies are able to take in. These are known as “chelated” minerals, and have names like magnesium succinate, calcium citrate, etc.

Generally speaking, most forms of minerals are acceptable, but there are some differences in bioavailability based on your health status. The most common form of calcium—calcium carbonate—for example, isn’t well absorbed by people who are deficient in hydrochloric acid.

Because of individual differences in the ability to absorb a nutrient, mineral supplements that contain a variety of sources are probably the best supplements to take. In the case of calcium, sources such as carbonate, citrate, ascorbate, aspartate, malate, etc.

Dosage Level

Once you've confirmed that a product has the right forms of the nutrients you're looking for, the next step is to make sure the product has enough of those nutrients to actually improve your health.

Some products boast a wide range of really good ingredients. Yet when you look at their labels, the amount of each ingredient is so small that it couldn’t possibly have a therapeutic effect. I often see this in combination products (products that contain a blend of different nutrients), particularly those targeting vision, brain and joint health. 

For example, an arthritis supplement may promote itself as having a whole slew of great ingredients, including 500 mg of glucosamine sulfate. To the unknowing eye, that probably sounds great. However, clinical trials have shown that the amount of glucosamine sulfate needed to produce a beneficial effect is actually three times that amount—1,500 mg. So while you may believe you’re getting a great product, in reality, it’s not going to do you much good. 

Don’t be fooled by this kind of marketing “sizzle.” Know the recommended dosages for key nutrients before you go shopping so that you can better identify the best supplements to take. 

Another part of being savvy about dosage levels is understanding how to interpret the numbers associated with chelated minerals (e.g., magnesium succinate, calcium citrate).

The doses listed for chelated minerals are not always indicative of elemental amounts of the mineral. “Elemental” refers to the actual mineral in a product, as opposed to the total weight of the chelated mineral compound. Using calcium as an example, calcium carbonate is 40 percent elemental calcium—it takes 1,250 mg of calcium carbonate to get 500 mg of elemental calcium.

When a label says, “X mg elemental calcium,” “X mg calcium (as calcium carbonate)” or “X mg calcium (from calcium carbonate),” it means you’re getting X mg of elemental calcium. However, if the label says only, “X mg calcium carbonate,” assume that the amount of actual calcium is only 40 percent of that.

Reputable Manufacturers

Nutritional supplements are big business, and thousands of companies are in the market. Which ones are reliable?

Solid, reputable nutritional supplement manufacturers formulate supplements based on scientific research, buy the best raw materials and pay independent labs to make sure their products meet label claims and contain no contaminants.

It is perfectly reasonable to contact a supplement manufacturer and ask for verification of quality. Good companies have product specs, research supporting their formulas and laboratory assays stating that their ingredients are free of contaminants and true to dosage claims made on the labels. Some of this information is available on company websites. If you’re unable to go this route, however, feel free to call and ask about quality-control measures. This will require some effort, but it will be well worth your time to ensure they are actually the best supplements to take.

Price

We’re all looking to save money, but understand that price has some bearing on quality.

Do not purchase dirt-cheap or mail-order brands without carefully studying labels and learning something about the company. Manufacturers of discount products have to save money somewhere, and they may do it by using inadequate dosages, improper nutrient forms or other cost-cutting measures.

A few years ago, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy researchers assayed a number of arthritis products containing glucosamine or chondroitin. They found that the amount of these active ingredients stated on the label deviated significantly from what was in the products. Price seemed to be a factor. All of the products costing less than $1 per 1,200 mg of chondroitin contained less than 10 percent of the label claim. (To be fair, some of the higher-priced products were deficient, too.)

You can get information like this from organizations that evaluate consumer products. One that specializes in nutritional supplements is Consumerlab.com. They review a wide variety of nutritional categories, make general recommendations, test products for quality and potency—and post all of this information on their website.

Seals of Approval

Some organizations offer “seals of approval” for products that pass their evaluation requirements. I have mixed feelings about this.

Many of these organizations are reputable—although a few are simply rubber stamps for a fee. However, virtually all of them require manufacturers to pay thousands of dollars per year to use their seal on products and in advertising, and smaller, less well-heeled companies may not be able to afford the fee even though they deserve the seal.

Seals of approval from Consumerlab.com, the Natural Products Association (NPA), the United States Pharmacopeia (USP), and others are indicative that the products are the best supplements to take. However, the absence of such a seal is no reflection on quality, either good or bad.

Expiration Dates

Always look for an expiration date. While some nutrients, such as calcium and other minerals, maintain their potency for several years, others like vitamins B and C have a significantly shorter shelf life. The FDA doesn’t require expiration dates on supplement bottles, so many companies don’t provide them. I do not recommend buying such products. Who knows how long they’ve been sitting around?

Label Red Flags

Look for “red flags” on labels—sugar, artificial coloring and flavoring, preservatives, and additives such as shellac, chlorine and other chemicals should be avoided.

Above all, don’t be afraid to seek help when shopping for the best supplements to take. Ask questions of a nutrition-minded physician, a nutritionist, savvy friends or even health-food store employees. Just make sure the advice you get isn’t tainted—and remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it most likely is.

More Dr. Whitaker Advice on Nutritional Support

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