If You See These 2 Words on a Supplement Bottle, Don't Take It, Experts Warn
Beware of any pills or capsules that describe themselves this way on the packaging.
The dietary supplements industry is one that's hard to ignore based on its sheer size alone. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 57.6 percent of adults aged 20 and over reported having taken one within the past 30 days in 2017-2018, which increases to 80.2 percent of women 60 and older. But despite its size, the industry still faces its fair share of problems—including having some products recalled due to safety issues. So before you make a mistake with your next purchase, experts warn that you can tell which supplements to avoid by checking for two words printed right on the label. Read on to see what you should treat as a red flag while shopping.
Beware of any supplements using the words "pharmaceutical-grade" on the label.
The supplement aisle can be a daunting place, especially when the products for sale all claim health benefits in easy-to-take pill form. But if you notice the label has the words "pharmaceutical-grade" printed on it, you should avoid it, Ashley Jordan Ferira, PhD, RDN, explained during a podcast for wellness website Mindbodygreen.
The reason this is a cause for concern involves the regulatory requirements set for supplements by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Since products like multivitamins have different rules than food products, over-the-counter drugs, and pharmaceuticals, the use of such unregulated language promising a clinical level of quality can signal that a product is trying to overstep its bounds. This can also include unverified terms like "pharmacist-recommended," "doctor-formulated," "guaranteed quality," "comprehensive," and "complete."
"That is blurring a line," Ferira said. "And in the United States, the laws have quite clearly drawn lines. I would say that's a red flag. Like in a relationship, [I would] just move on."
The FDA has minimal requirements for claims supplements can make on their packaging.
Even though supplements are widely used, the popular one-a-day pills and powders that millions of people purchase aren't scrutinized in the same way medicines are. According to the FDA, while federal law requires products to be labeled as "dietary supplement," "herbal supplement," or other appropriate supplement distinction, it does not require them to be proven safe or verify the accuracy of health claims on the label to the agency's satisfaction before it goes to market. It's only after the product is in active use by the public that it will take action "against a product that presents a significant or unreasonable risk of illness or injury, or that is otherwise adulterated or misbranded," with the agency clarifying that it only reviews product labels, information, and marketing campaigns "as its resources permit."
Besides the safety of the products themselves, other conditions can sometimes lead to health issues for some people. "Supplements may interact with other medications you're taking or pose risks if you have certain medical conditions, such as liver disease, or are going to have surgery," Jeffrey Millstein, MD, a physician at Penn Internal Medicine Woodbury Heights, told Penn Medicine. "Some supplements also haven't been tested in pregnant women, nursing mothers, or children, and you may need to take extra precautions."
Experts also recommend avoiding supplements that make extreme claims in their marketing.
If you're new to taking supplements, Millstein recommends speaking with your physician first about what's suitable for you and if there's anything you should specifically avoid. "In addition to a healthy diet, there is evidence that some supplements can benefit your overall well-being with little to no risk," he says.
Specific popular vitamins and minerals such as folic acid, vitamin B12, fish oil, zinc, and melatonin are often go-to options based on the ailments they can potentially help alleviate. But Millstein warns that one of the most flagrant red flags are products that make extreme claims such as being "completely safe," offering a quick fix, or that they work better than a prescription drug, especially if they're specific. "In fact, it's illegal for companies to make claims that supplements will treat, diagnose, prevent or cure diseases," he says.
Look for certain seals of approval if you want to be sure a supplement's ingredients have been verified.
While there are certain words on a label that may tell you which supplements to avoid buying, looking for a seal of approval from the United States Pharmacopeial Convention on the bottle will at least guarantee that the product in question contains the ingredients listed on the label in the quantities advertised. Besides checking for purity and potency, the small green and yellow "USP Verified" seal signifies that the product has been vetted by the independent group to be free of harmful levels of contaminants or ingredients and "has been made according to [Food and Drug Administration] FDA current Good Manufacturing Practices using sanitary and well-controlled procedures."
But beware of products that use "USP" lettering without the accompanying seal, as it means the group hasn't independently verified the products. According to the USP website, only a small number of vitamin, multivitamin, mineral, and other supplement brands carry the seal, including NatureMade, Kirkland, and TruNature.
Another nonprofit group, NSF International, is also contracted by manufacturers to vet their products, awarding a blue and white seal to products that contain the ingredients advertised on the label. According to The New York Times, the group also specifically uses its "NSF Certified for Sport" program to check dietary supplements such as creatine protein powders for additives such as steroids or prescription drugs.