There's a loophole in the supplement industry that makes it easy for bad supplements to be sold. That means it's very hard to know the difference between high-quality products and those that are likely to have something to hide.
While supplements are regulated by the FDA, the number of safety precautions taken to ensure quality is surprisingly non-existent. Supplements do not need to go through any review process in order to be sold in stores or online. In fact, unless your supplement has a special identification on the label (more on that in a moment), there's no way to know if the ingredient panel is even accurate.
It's why year-after-year, many professional athletes fail drug tests and blame over-the-counter products. While some athletes knowingly violate the rules, there are many more who are innocent victims of a system that does very little to protect your safety to ensure that what you think you're taking is actually what's in the product.
Supplements have real value -- and many can help with everything from muscle gain to bone health -- but knowing how to quickly identify the proven from the untested is the real key to upgrading your health and making sure you're putting quality nutrients into your body.
Is Your Supplement Safe?
You'll be hard-pressed to find any nutritionist suggest that supplements are well-regulated by the U.S. government. Trust us. We reached out to 5 different nutritionists, and none were willing to go on record and make that statement.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t inspect or approve the safety or effectiveness of supplements before they hit the shelves, according to the National Institutes of Health.
It goes back to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which classifies supplements as food, not drugs. The act said that supplements with established ingredients (those sold in the United States before 1994) could be marketed without any evidence that they’re effective or safe.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires all information about a dietary supplement product to be truthful and not misleading. A closer look at a supplement label will reveal the phrasing you’re so used to: “This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”
All of which means this: It’s the supplement creator’s responsibility to evaluate the safety and proper labeling of their products.
The problem is obvious: when it's easy to cheat the system, many won't go the extra mile.
So the solution to supplement safety is clear: if you want to make sure you're taking a good product, it’s your responsibility to know exactly how to identify good manufacturing from good marketing.
The answer: NSF Certified for Sport.
How to Find Safe Supplements
If you're going to buy a supplement, it's highly recommended that you look for a seal of approval from a third party. There are several independent organizations — NSF International (NSF) and U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), for example—that offer quality testing of supplements and then pop on their seals of approval on labels if they pass.
But, not all of these seals are equal. For instance, USP is oftentimes a single test to guarantee label accuracy. More importantly, it doesn't look for impurities in products or banned substances. It also doesn't require a brand to test every batch to guarantee that no dangerous products are ever sold.
The gold standard for safety and purity for professional athletes and Olympians is NSF Certified for Sport.® This is a specific certification created by NSF and recognized by the NFL, MLB, NHL, and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) for their standards. In fact, in some sports, non-NSF Certified for Sport® products are not even allowed in locker rooms. It's why many products that are promoted by athletes can't be safely used by the spokespeople.
This seal of approval ensures that every batch is tested to ensure that:
- Labels are 100% accurate
- The supplement is free of dangerous levels of toxins or metals
- The supplement is free of banned or unknown substances (they review more than 272 illegal ingredients)
Even if you're not an athlete, you deserve the same health standards as Olympians and professional athletes because that's how you ensure that anything you put in your body will lead to a positive outcome.
"The supplement industry is hard to trust, even for those with all the resources in the world," says Bar Malik, Director of Sports Performance for the New York Knicks.
That's why NSF Certified for Sport is a simple safety check. Because it costs upwards of six figures for the certification, it's an easy way to know who is willing to invest in the safety of their users. Taking anything else is an unnecessary risk.
“If every person -- whether an athlete or just a weekend warrior -- just took products that were NSF Certified for Sport, then the entire supplement industry would have a better reputation and people would be more likely to see positive results," says Malik.