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Vitamin & Supplement Buyer’s Guide: How to Find Products & Brands You Can Trust

Vitamins and supplements exist in a regulatory grey area in the United States. The FDA doesn’t require brands to undergo the same testing demand for pharmaceutical or food products.

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Where the FDA lacks certifying agency, third-parties such as the NSF, Project Non-GMO, and the USP step better assure supplement quality. These, along with several other key considerations, can be useful tools in recognizing which dietary supplements deserve your hard-earned dollars.

Introduction

Vitamins and Supplements aren’t required to undergo any testing before they reach consumers. The FDA maintains a set of manufacturing guidelines known as the Current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP) but only plays a retroactive role in enforcing them. In other words, inferior products can reach shelves before any action is taken.

For a couple of thousand dollars, anyone can launch their own supplement company. By using contract manufacturing, it’s as easy as sending a few emails and opening up an Amazon account. These are not what I consider “quality” brands. For a company to be considered among the best supplement brands there are some major hoops to jump through.

Types of Supplement Brands

Some supplement brands have been around for decades, have dedicated scientific teams full of Ph.D’s, and serve as active members of developing industry quality standards. Generally, these are what I call “doctor-trusted” brands. They’re also referred to as practitioner brands.

Generally, I consider supplements as falling into one of several broad categories of quality based on several attributes. The following are the categories I find to be practical for consideration, in order of descending quality:

  1. Practitioner Brands
  2. Consumer Brands
  3. Online-Only Brands
  4. Store Brands

Each of these types of supplement brands has defining characteristics that separate them from others. For example, true practitioner brands are only available for purchase from licensed health professionals. Consumer brands are products you’re likely to find in health food stores and most online supplement retailers. Below is a brief description of each and how I define them.

practitioner channel supplement brands infographic

Practitioner Brands

Highest Quality | Lowest Availability

True practitioner brands are only available for purchase from licensed health professionals. In most cases, you can get a code from your doctor, enter it on that brand’s website, and then be allowed to make purchases there.

In practice, very few brands restrict themselves to this model anymore. They still have strict reseller policies but are often available online—even through select authorized sellers on Amazon. For this reason, I generally call these brands “doctor-trusted” brands.

These brands have their own dedicated facilities, scientific teams, and work closely with health professionals and researchers to develop superior formulations. You’re not likely to find these brands in stores but in some cases can find them online. More on that later.

consumer brand supplements infographic

Consumer Brands

Medium-High Quality | Greatest Availability

Consumer brands are those you’re likely to see on the shelves of local health food stores, Whole Foods, and retailers like The Vitamin Shoppe. These brands exist across a spectrum of quality tiers as well as price points. Generally; lower prices mean lower quality but that’s not always the case.

Consumer-quality vitamin and supplement brands face the fiercest of competition in my opinion. They are compared to hundreds of other products as part of their typical consumer buying process. This benefits us meek consumers by providing strong incentives to these brands to seek quality assurance certifications.

Going in blind, one can often get an idea of which consumer brands are of higher quality by looking for things like USDA Organic, Project Non-GMO, or Quality-Assurance International certifications. Just remember that things like “Gluten-Free,” “Organic,” or “All Natural” don’t mean a thing without third-party certification.

online only supplement brands infographic

Online Only Brands

Low-High Quality | Medium Availability

Online-only brands are often produced by small companies on limited budgets. You can buy just about any supplement brand you want on sites like Amazon, PureFormulas, iHerb, or Vitacost. The defining characteristic of an online-only brand is its unavailability in stores. Simple enough.

Online-only brands are the hardest to qualify in my opinion. Looking for typical certifications like Organic, Non-GMO, or QAI is a good approach, but not foolproof. For example, I could easily replace a picture of my product online with one showing a USDA Organic icon on the label—just to see how it influenced sales.

I’ve had a chance to work with several online-online brands in the past and can say this; some are complete hucksters and others are incredible. Selling online-only is a great way for a new brand to get an initial feel for its market and a smart move in my opinion.

always ask for a Certificate of Analysis, manufacturer disclosure, and proof of cGMP adherence before I consider an online-only brand. It’s annoying but the only way to assure your new preworkout mix isn’t just rice powder mixed with Blackmarket ephedra.

store brand supplement brands infographic

Store Brands

Low-Medium Quality | High Availability

I avoid store-brand supplements like the plague. I’ve read too much news about retailers like Wal-Mart, Walgreens, Target, and even GNC. I’m not going full conspiracy nut here—read about it for yourself.

General retailers like Wal-Mart and Target manage gigantic, international, and complex supply chains. Their manufacturing facilities aren’t set up for specialized dietary supplement manufacturing, at least not from what I’ve read.

There are plenty of exceptions I’m sure. For example, Amazon.com’s brand Elements is produced by Arizona Nutritional Supplements (a contract manufacturer specializing in dietary supplements). Amazon makes CoA’s and ingredient breakdowns publicly-available on their website.

In my opinion, this level of transparency should be required of any online-only or store brand considered for purchase.

supplement quality logos

Qualifying Supplement Brands

Knowing the different types of supplement brand quality can help steer you towards the right brand for you. In addition to knowing what separates these brands, having a working knowledge of the different types of certifications to compare is essential.

Several noteworthy third-party agencies offer supplement brands services to better communicate the quality of their products to consumers. Organizations such as the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Project Non-GMO all offer such services. They allow the use of trademarked symbols—for qualifying products—to let consumers know they’ve met certain quality standards.

These third-party certifications may include characteristics such as organic ingredients, natural ingredients, Non-GMO ingredients, and cGMP production quality. There are many different types of certifications out there and there’s no point in trying to keep up with them all. I regard the following certifications to be the most important for finding quality supplement brands.

NSF Certification

The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) offers several types of certifications including product and ingredients, GMP (manufacturing facility level), and NSF Certified for Sport. In most cases, you’ll not see NSF logos on many individual products but, rather, you’ll note a manufacturer bears their logo on their website. This means that all products from that brand are produced under strict quality control conditions. It’s just a nuance of how NSF licenses use of their insignia.

The NSF Certified for Sport is displayed on products to signify them being free of banned substances. Organizations such as the United States Anti-Doping Association (USADA) test thousands of athletes for the use of banned substances each year. If they test positive—even for trace amounts of a banned substance—it could cost them their career.

NSF Certified for Sport provides assurance that products are safe to use in competitive sports. Not only does it signify the product was produced under cGMP conditions, but also that additional steps were taken to avoid adulteration. Basically, it’s the highest level of quality assurance a product can have. It’s also one of the rarest.

USDA Organic Certification

Certified Organic ingredients are a debatable metric for overall product quality. I look for them—but the science related to the benefits of organic vs. conventional isn’t agreed upon. Assuming for the sake of discussion that organic is superior to non-organic, there are some important gotchas to watch out for.

Under the National Organic Program (NOP) guidelines, products falling into three categories can be marketed and labeled as varying degrees of “organic.”

  • 100% Organic: Bears the USDA Organic Label
  • 95% Organic: Bears the USDA Organic Label
  • 70% Organic: Labeled as “Made with Organic {organic ingredient name}” Cannot display USDA Organic symbol.
  • <70% Organic: Can only label certain ingredients as organic. Cannot display USDA Organic symbol

Deciphering the various degrees of Organic products is as complex as you want it to be. For an in-depth discussion, I suggest reading the AHPA’s guide to organic labeling (PDF via NSF). When I compare two products I regard the greater degree of “organic-ness” as being the better option in most cases.

United States Pharmacopeia (USP, USP-NF)

The United States Pharmacopeial Convention maintains an official body of standards related to process quality practices for the production of certain goods. This includes medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, and even dietary supplements.

The USP emblem is made available to products that have undergone the requirements of the USP to certify their products. I’ve found this form of certification is much less-common than NSF-certifications and only found on a handful of brands. Namely, Costco’s Kirkland Signature and NatureMade.

USP is a solid certification but so rarely seen within the vitamin and supplements industry that I don’t usually obsess over it.

Non-GMO Certification

Project Non-GMO is the best-recognized form of non-GMO certification in my opinion. Their cute little butterfly logo helps consumers find products that avoid the use of genetically modified ingredients. Much like certified Organic ingredients, the science favoring non-GMO vs. GMO is not agreed upon. Personally, I choose Non-GMO when possible.

Project Non-GMO certification means a product has been certified to adhere to the agency’s rigorous supply chain standard. This includes the exclusion of GMO-containing ingredients directly, possible contamination during the process, trace amounts in finalized products, and even audits things like the feed given to animal-derived ingredients.

Project Non-GMO has a publicly available guide to its standard that can be downloaded for free (PDF). It’s not light reading by any means but very informative for anyone on a mission to understand what qualifications a product must first meet before being declared “Non-GMO.” Just remember, any product can stamp “Non-GMO” on the label but the use of the Project Non-GMO logo means that the product has undergone actual certification processes.

NPA GMP Certification

The Natural Products Association (NPA) is a leader in policy development within the supplements market. Established in 1936, the NPA is the oldest non-profit organization of its type in the United States. They develop strategic partnerships with educational institutes, government entities, and policymakers to ensure better and more transparent regulation within the natural products industry.

They maintain a strong presence in Washington D.C. where they ensure the best interests of the natural products industry are pursued. This, as one can imagine, is a full-time job! To help fund their efforts, they offer natural products manufacturers several certification services. They offer a GMP Certification process to help manufacturers communicate their dedication to cGMP quality standards to consumers. This is comparable to the NSF Registered GMP certification.

Standardized Ingredients

Vitamins and Supplements differ from pharmaceutical products in many ways. One distinctive way is that natural compounds in and of themselves cannot be patented. Another is that compounds used to alter physiology in a natural way also cannot be patented. For a full run down, check out this great article by IPWatchdog.

Since companies often are unable to patent the ingredients in their products many choose to patent the process by which they isolate or combine ingredients. These compounds are often given brandable names and companies invest heavily in clinical research. They then license the use of these types of ingredients to brands to include in their products.

I prefer my supplements to contain these compounds, when possible, for several reasons. Below are three of the most important reasons to choose supplements with standardized ingredients:

  1. Same experience between brands (mostly)
  2. Supportive clinical data
  3. No price gouging

Meriva is an excellent example of such a compound. It’s a complex of curcumin (isolated from turmeric) and phosphatidylcholine licensed and manufactured by Indena. Meriva has been the focus of several clinical trials to describe its benefits (R)(R-PDF)(R). Buying a curcumin supplement containing Meriva as the active form guarantees a predictable experience.

Review

Vitamins and supplements are incredible tools in achieving better nutritional balance. I’ve used more than I can count over the years—some to more effect than others. I believe we’re truly lucky to live in a country where the FDA doesn’t try to overregulate the dietary supplements industry.

I recognize this comes with a certain degree of consumer responsibility, however, and believe the guidelines in this article can help anyone determine the best option given a series of choices of dietary supplements.