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Supplements: not all are created equal

Updated: May 23, 2022

With an endless variety of products available over the counter and on the internet, you should be aware that not all supplements are created equal.

How are supplements regulated?

A law passed in 1994 classified dietary supplements as foods, subjecting them to the same lax regulations that govern foodstuffs.

A look back at recent headlines unveils a series of grave safety issues related to our food supply: spinach contaminated with deadly E. coli; wheat products tainted with hazardous chemicals; tomatoes infested with disease-causing salmonella; the list goes on and on. So, it's only natural to assume that such health-promoting products as dietary supplements ought to be held to a higher standard than foodstuffs.

Marketing claims and their meanings

A quick survey of the market reveals many supplements with different claims, certifications, and “grades;” all gimmicks used by marketers to help their product stand out, or to convey the sense that their product is somehow superior. Yet it may be surprising to know that the vast majority of these have no meaning or legal bearing whatsoever. Let's take a look at the most common claims and their real-world meaning:

  • “GMP-certified”: Unless more specific information is stated, this claim is meaningless. Good Manufacturing Practices for food are vastly different from those of drugs, and all supplement manufacturers are expected to comply with Food GMP’s. So a simple “GMP-certified” claim has no added value.

  • “Pharmaceutical Grade”: Typically reserved for only a select group of products that follow the true standards of the pharmaceutical industry, this term is not closely regulated, allowing some subpar products to be labeled as such.

  • “Standardized”: Standardization ensures consistency from one batch to another. Yet there are no current regulatory requirements in the US for the use of this term. Therefore, it can be used in light of any constant, regardless of the actual impact or relevance that it may have on the quality, potency or purity of a product.

  • “Tested”: Unless you know exactly what tests they are referring to, this statement means very little. A maker can place tablets in a scale and claim they have “tested” the product (for weight, as an example), although this tells nothing about the purity, strength or bioavailability of the formulation.

What to look for in a dietary supplement

First, look for evidence that the product formula or “recipe” has been developed using existing and valid scientific evidence, or at the very least, a scientific consensus amongst recognized physicians and scientists. Many products in the market are simply the concoction of corporate executives who go along with fad ingredients. Make sure the product is rooted in solid science.

Secondly, ask whether the product is manufactured under pharmaceutical guidelines. Remember that many like to call their product “pharmaceutical grade”, so your questions ought to center on specifics such as “is the product manufactured in a pharmaceutically licensed facility?” Or “does the manufacturing facility comply with drug GMP guidelines?”

Third-party certifications or “seals of approval” typically mean that the facility has undergone review by a private auditor and has been found to comply with the auditor’s own guidelines. The drawback for the consumer is that more often than not, it's difficult to know just what those guidelines are, or whether the standards are high enough. Keep in mind that more often than not, the certification is conducted using food-based manufacturing rules. On the other hand, a product manufactured in a drug-licensed facility, under pharmaceutical guidelines will obviate the need for any such third-party unknown guidelines.

The cornerstone of any good pharmaceutical manufacturer lays on verification and testing. Manufacturers are nowadays required to conduct some testing on their products, but the regulations allow them to decide which tests to perform and what specifications to set. So once again, ask specific questions about the type of testing that is conducted. Words like “purity-tested” bear little meaning. Rather, find out if the label claims are verified through assay and third party testing. Ask if the product undergoes dissolution analysis – not just disintegration.

Athletes and supplements

Finally, if you are an athlete and consume supplements as a part of your sports nutrition plan, it's paramount to find out whether the products you are consuming are free of banned substances.


A simple check of the list of ingredients will not suffice, as some contaminants may be present through inadvertent, mistaken, or outright fraudulent use. Recent studies found that many supplements in the marketplace are contaminated with compounds classified as restricted or banned. Find out if your brand undergoes testing and is certified banned-substance-free. Look for a brand that complies with International Olympic Committee (IOC) or World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) guidelines, as these are considered the gold standard.

Always ask your doctor if a supplement falls in line with your overall, long-term wellness goals.


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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