What Should I Look For In A Supplement?

When searching for a supplement there are 3 key factors to consider.  

1) Purity, Authenticity, Potency Claim  - What you see on the label is what you will be getting.  

2) Safety - Does the supplement in your hands contain any toxic substances such as pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals, solvents, microbes? Has it been tainted with pharmaceuticals by fraudulent manufacturers or cross contaminated with toxic plants during the harvesting process?

3) Absorbability and Bioavailability - Is there a better and more absorbable form available? Although not as crucial as the first 2 factors, this third factor should be something every consumer is aware of. Afterall, would you pay for a supplement only to have it pass right through your system unabsorbed?

Does Cost = Quality?

The slogan "You get what you pay for" rings true with the majority of supplements on the market but there are some important considerations. Just because a supplement is more expensive than another does not make it of a higher quality. Efforts could simply have gone into branding and marketing with sloppy guidelines on the manufacturing and quality control portions. When it comes to choosing which supplement to purchase,"Bargains" and "Huge Discounts" should not be a determining factor. Here's why.

The cost associated with producing a high quality supplement comes from:

1) The purchase of raw material from a reputable supplier. A certificate of analysis demonstrating authenticity and purity of the raw material should be provided by all reputable suppliers. Some supplements companies (the manufacturers) will take it a step further to test the raw materials for purity and contamination despite suppliers already presenting a certificate of analysis. There have been reports where the supplement company further tested the raw material from a reputable supplier only to find contamination with pesticides.

2) Every batch of raw material and finished product is tested.

Testing is conducted to assess:

  • Purity, Potency, Active ingredient content - Basically testing to see if the label claim is authentic and non-fraudulent.
  • Presence of herbicide, pesticide residue.
  • Heavy metal, microbial, toxic plant contamination. Solvents and heavy metal contamination in ocean-sourced products such as fish oils is extremely common. 
  • Rancidity markers in oil products. 

This is contrasted to some companies that perform skip lot testing. Skip lot testing is the testing of selected batches of raw materials and finished products. Why do some manufacturers perform skip lot testing? Reduction of overall cost and time!

Testing by reputable manufacturers is usually conducted by 3rd party independent labs. This adds to the cost of production but is also a big determining factor in supplement quality control. 3rd party labs do not have any affiliation with the manufacturers unlike in-house labs which are bascially part of the supplement company.

3) Assembling a formulation team who have formal training in product formulation. The raw material/herb can actually be misidentified and you run this risk when companies use a less than qualified formulation team.

4) Adhering to current good manufacturing practices (cGMP) which entails the above points in addition to standards of cleanliness and safety, production control, warehousing and distribution standards and record keeping throughout the manufacturing process.   

5) The use of more bioavailable and absorbable forms of a supplement. For example, with Vitamin B12 there is a cheaper and less bioavailable form called cyanocobalamin. Cyanocobalamin doesn't get absorbed straight away but has to be converted to the more bioavailable form called methylcobalamin. To ensure maximal and efficient absorption we want to eliminate such steps. Another example is in calcium supplements. Calcium carbonate is a cheaper form of calcium as compared to calcium citrate which is twice as bioavailable and better absorbed than the carbonate form.

6) Less use of Binders, Additives, Fillers, Artificial colouring. Often times, manufacturers who are trying to minimize costs, will add fillers to "bulk up" the supplement to give the impression that you are getting more. Binders such as magnesium stearate prevent the ingredients from sticking to manufacturing equipment but it can affect the release of these ingredients after ingestion. Therefore, always read the ingredients. A "laundry list" of non-medicinal ingredients is a supplement you probably would want to avoid.

Are Supplements Provided By Healthcare Practitioners Of A Higher Quality?

Healthcare professionals have access to a greater variety and more potent supplements for a variety of reasons. Eventhough the potential for harm is less severe for dietary supplements as compared to pharmaceutical drugs, interactions can occur when combined with medications and deleterious side effects are always possible. Furthermore, there are supplements that are contraindicated with certain health conditions which may not be common knowledge to the average consumer.

Efficacy and safety of a supplement is priority for the healthcare professional. Supplements that are readily available over the counter or from online stores may not possess the efficacy and safety standards that is required. A supplement company simply wanting to make a quick buck may have its priorities directed elsewhere making its product readily available to the masses.

In addition, counterfeit supplements which are marketed to look like the original brand of supplements do exist. These are typically sold on the open market such as online stores. These counterfeit supplements fail to contain what is specificed on the label and often times contain ineffective or harmful ingredients. If you are unsure if a product is safe, always consult your healthcare professional. 

In Health,
Zhihong Oon N.D