5 Tips for Buying Dietary Supplements

Tips for buying dietary supplements.
Yagi Studio / Getty Images

Dietary supplements are everywhere -- you'll find them at the grocery store, drug store, convenience store and the big box stores. And there're lots of them. Multivitamins, single nutrients, fiber, minerals, fatty acids, antioxidants, extracts, weight loss aids -- even energy drinks and protein powders are classified as dietary supplements. 

So how do you know which ones to buy?

It's not easy. Although supplements are regulated to some point by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it's up to the supplement manufacturers to supply safe products.

The FDA mostly steps in after a problem's been identified.

Be a smart shopper. Here are my top five tips for choosing dietary supplements.

1. Know why -- or if -- you need them.

Dietary supplements are best used to ensure you're getting an adequate intake of specific nutrients -- they're some multiple vitamins that will do the job nicely. But there are times when specific supplements are used to help treat specific health issues -- like taking calcium and vitamin D for osteoporosis or iron for anemia. In cases like this, your health care provider has probably already explained how much you should take and maybe offered suggests about particular brands.

If you think you might have health reasons to take specific supplements, you need to speak with your health care provider. Don't diagnose yourself based on a self-help book or fall for miracle cures you might find on a website.

And finally, if your goal for taking supplements is to prevent illness, then you might want to reconsider your plan -- research studies don't usually find supplements to be helpful in this way.

They probably don't hurt either, but the foods you eat (or don't eat) probably have a bigger impact on your health risks.

2. Brush up on your label reading skills.

Labels are designed to catch your eye so you'll buy the product. And although supplement manufacturers have to follow specific rules about health claims, you might find yourself looking at a product that says it can do more than it can.


Don't believe it -- when it comes to supplements and health claims, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. At best you'll waste your money, and at worst you'll end up with something dangerous.

Look past the claims on the front of the label and review the Supplement Facts chart and ingredients -- that will give you an idea of what's in the bottle and how much to take. You should also find the name and contact information for the manufacturer.

3. Keep it simple -- avoid the mega doses and extra ingredients.

So let's say you want to buy a bottle of vitamin C. You go to the store, and you see one bottle of vitamin C, another bottle of vitamin C with immune-supporting herbs, and a bottle of vitamin C with this, that and some other thing. Are the additional things helpful?

Those extra ingredients may seem like a good idea, but the more ingredients, the higher the likelihood of having some unwanted side effect. Start with just the vitamin or mineral you're interested in taking. Don't buy more than you need.

Also, follow the dosage instructions on the label. Although dietary supplements are generally safe, taking too much can be bad for you. I know that some people endorse mega-doses of supplements for various health reasons, but please don't.

4. Choose a respected brand. 

You know there are some brands of vitamins you've seen for years -- they've been around for a long time, so they probably offer a decent product. If you're shopping at a drug store or a health food store, you should be able to ask someone for advice. But if you're going to the grocery store or the big box store -- well then you're on your own.

In that case, look for products that have been certified by ConsumerLabs, The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, or NSF International. These organizations don't guarantee a product is safe or effective, but they indicate that it's undergone testing for quality.

5. Buying on the Internet? Evaluate the site!

Searching the web for supplements will turn up all kinds of websites, from official supplement company sites to cut-rate cheapo sites, to websites that sell products that are worthless or worse. Don't fall for products that promise cures for diseases, extreme weight loss, or um, impressive sexual prowess.

Look for sites that offer current sound information (with references), include easy access to contact information. The National Network of Libraries of Medicine has tips on evaluating health websites.

Finally -- Speak to Your Health Care Provider If:

  • You're pregnant or breastfeeding
  • You're going to have surgery
  • You have any health conditions
  • You're taking any prescription medications


American Cancer Society. "Choosing and Using Dietary Supplements." Accessed February 12, 2016. http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/complementaryandalternativemedicine/dietarysupplements/dietary-supplements-choosing-safely.

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. "Using Dietary Supplements Wisely." Accessed February 12, 2016. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/supplements/wiseuse.htm

National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. "Dietary Supplements: What You Need to Know." Accessed February 12, 2016.http://ods.od.nih.gov/HealthInformation/DS_WhatYouNeedToKnow.aspx.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Tips for Dietary Supplement Users," Accessed February 12, 2016. http://www.fda.gov/Food/DietarySupplements/UsingDietarySupplements/ucm110567.htm.

Continue Reading