Now that you know supplements are regulated post-market, you’re probably aware that all supplements are not created equal. Some are manufactured in safe environments with high quality control standards and then tested and certified by independent certification companies. But others are manufactured in ways that allow for both accidental and intentional contamination. Even worse, you can’t rely on that supplement label to know what’s in your product because no regulatory body is evaluating the contents of all supplements before they reach athletes and other consumers.
While it’s difficult to tell if a supplement is safe or potentially harmful, there are some red flags that you can always look out for when it comes to evaluating supplements and determining which ones to use and which ones to avoid.
Through this five-part series on supplements, you will find an overview of the dietary supplement industry so that you can decide if the potential benefits of dietary supplements outweigh the risks. And, if you find you do need to use supplements, how you can better choose a low-risk product.
What types of products should I avoid?
In general, it’s best to avoid supplements that are not certified by an independent certification company. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) provides guidance on reducing your risk from supplements by using NSF Certified for Sport supplements.
If you choose to use uncertified supplements despite the risks, avoid using products with red flags (see graphics below). However, you should always remember that even a thorough review for red flags is no guarantee.
USADA is aware of several dietary supplements that, on initial inspection, would not have exhibited any “red flags,” but testing revealed that they were contaminated with experimental drugs! Because a supplement’s label and contents are not checked by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or anyone else before a product is sold, it is completely up to the manufacturer to accurately list the ingredients and the amounts.
While there are many companies that make high-quality supplements and spend a lot of time ensuring the labeling on their products is accurate, there are also companies that are sloppy during manufacturing or deliberately spike their products with illegal ingredients that are not on the label. There have been many cases where seemingly safe or low-risk products ended up containing prohibited performance-enhancing drugs, even though there was nothing on the label that made the product appear unsafe.
How can you identify risky supplements?
Researching your supplements and recognizing red flags is one way to reduce your risk if you decide to use supplements. Before using any supplement, check to see if the product or manufacturer is on the USADA’s High Risk List or the FDA Tainted Supplements list. While these lists are not all inclusive, they do identify many supplements and manufacturers that are known to be risky for athletes and consumers.
You should also consider these red flags while evaluating and researching any supplement you might use.