The Washington Post

What to look for in a supplement


One-third of Americans say they think supplement­s have been tested by the Food and Drug Administra­tion for safety, according to a nationally representa­tive survey by Consumer Reports of 3,070 adults in the United States in 2022. But the FDA doesn’t approve or test the safety or effectiven­ess of any supplement sold in the country before it enters the market.

The FDA typically learns of problems with a product only after it’s in stores. That’s unlike prescripti­on and over-the-counter drugs, which undergo multiple clinical trials as part of a lengthy FDA applicatio­n process before they’re approved for sale.

To learn about potential problems with supplement­s, the agency relies on reports of injuries or misleading marketing submitted by consumers or health-care providers.

“The FDA can’t ban risky supplement­s until they have some evidence or early signals that there’s a safety problem,” says Chuck Bell, who advocates for better oversight of supplement­s for Consumer Reports.

Still, a vitamin, mineral or another supplement may sometimes be needed, such as iron for those with anemia. So knowing what to look for when choosing a product is key.

Here are a few tips:

Look for the USP certificat­ion seal. The U.S. Pharmacope­ia sets the most widely accepted standards for dietary supplement­s, Consumer Reports experts say. (A list of Usp-verified products can be found at quality-supplement­ You may also find seals from other valid third-party testers, including ConsumerLa­, NSF Internatio­nal and

UL Solutions. But ignore unknown certificat­ions, even if they look official.

One label you won’t find? Test Labs USA. That was a fictitious seal of approval that 15 percent of people in CR’S survey who typically take supplement­s said they look for when buying supplement­s.

Don’t be fooled by “proprietar­y blends.” While companies that use the term must list the ingredient­s in their products, they don’t have to list the amounts of each one, Bell says. “So you’ll have no idea how little or how much a product has of any one of the ingredient­s,” he says. That’s especially a problem for compounds that can be hazardous at high doses, such as caffeine.

Skip products sold with claims that are too good to be true. Supplement makers can’t say their products treat or cure a disease or other health condition, according to the FDA. Also watch out for any supplement that’s purported to be a scientific breakthrou­gh, a miracle cure or an ancient remedy, as well as any product that has a secret ingredient or whose label has fancy phrases such as “molecule multiplici­ty,” “insulin receptor sites,” “glucose metabolism” or “thermogene­sis.”

Don’t rely on “organic,” “natural” or “whole foods” labeling.

Products with “organic” on the label must be grown and produced without certain chemicals, but that doesn’t guarantee the dosage or purity of a supplement’s key ingredient­s. And the term “natural” has no official FDA meaning. Finally, even if a pill contains real fruits or vegetables, products labeled “whole foods” aren’t substitute­s for the real thing.

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