A Smart Guide to Buying Supplements

By Tod Cooperman, MD, President, ConsumerLab.comConsumerLab.com is offering a 24-hour free pass to Dr. Oz viewers. Visit ConsumerLab.com/DoctorOz now and get immediate access to ConsumerLab.com’s unbiased testing of fish oil, ginseng and St. John’s Wort supplements.

Posted on | By Tod Cooperman, MD

When it comes to your health, you’ll do anything to keep your body and mind in great shape. But what if your health routine is doing you more harm than good? As I said on The Dr. Oz Show, you don’t always get what you want with dietary supplements (including supplements with vitamins, minerals, herbs and other special ingredients). Dr. Oz investigated popular supplements on the market today to see if they lived up to their promises and the results were shocking.

To find out more about the supplements you’re taking, ConsumerLab is offering a 24-hour free pass to Dr. Oz viewers. Visit ConsumerLab.com/DoctorOz now and get immediate access to ConsumerLab.com’s unbiased testing of fish oil, ginseng and St. John’s Wort supplements.

Here are a few key points to remember to avoid dangerous supplements, ensure that you only purchase quality products, and get the benefits that you are paying for. Remember to let your doctor know if you take or are planning to take any supplements. Some may interact with medications.

Fish Oil
The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil are the brain-boosting, heart-healthy good fats that have a multitude of anti-aging and anti-inflammatory properties.


Scam: As our research shows, you often aren’t getting what is promised to you on the label. In our study, 30% of the 24 fish oil supplements tested failed for either containing less of the omega-3s than the bottle had promised, or for being spoiled.


Solutions:

  • Watch out for claims on the bottle, such as “pharmaceutical grade,” which is not an actual FDA certification.
  • Don’t be fooled by the amount of “fish oil” on the front of the label. Instead, look for the amounts of EPA and DHA listed on the back of the bottle.
  • You’ll need at least 500 mg per dose of the omega-3s EPA and DHA. You’ll need a higher daily amount to treat some conditions; to avoid having to take too many softgels, pick a liquid or a product with a higher concentration of omega-3s.
  • Look out for oils that have gone rancid (this is hard to tell before you buy) or will go rancid (near their “best by” date). If you choose a bottled oil, use it up within two to three weeks of opening and always close tight and refrigerate.
  • You don’t have to pay a lot. There are good omega-3 oil supplements on the market for as little 5 or 6 cents per 500 mg of omega-3.
  • Of the products tested, Life Extension’s Super Omega and AdvoCare Omegaplex Omega-3s are among those that passed ConsumerLab.com’s tests.

St. John’s Wort
This supplement has long been considered a natural and safe way of treating mild and moderate depression with fewer side effects than other antidepressants.


Scam: In a study conducted by Consumerlab.com, more than 40% of the St. John’s Wort products tested either didn't contain the promised amount of the active ingredient, or were contaminated with small amounts of cadmium, which is both a kidney toxin and a carcinogen.  


Solutions:

  • St. John’s Wort is not for the occasional “blues,” but for mild to moderate forms of major depression. Allow several weeks for full effect.
  • Look for a product providing 300 mg taken three times daily of extract standardized to either 0.3% hypericin or 1% to 3% hyperforin.
  • Of the products tested, Nature’s Way’s Pereka St. John's Wort and Nature’s Bounty’s double-strength St. John's Wort are among those that passed ConsumerLab.com’s tests.

Ginseng
American and Asian ginseng have been shown to help the body prevent flu-like illness. Some evidence also suggests improved well-being and sexual function with Asian ginseng.

Scam:
Forty-five percent of ginseng in our lab tests failed for either not containing the required amount of ginseng compounds or for being contaminated with lead.


Solutions:

  • Generally look for American or Asian (often sold as “Korean”) ginseng, as these have the most clinical evidence supporting their effectiveness. A daily dose typically provides at least 200 mg of an extract or 1000 to 2000 mg (1 to 2 grams) of a dried plant powder.
  • Real ginseng should contain several milligrams of natural ginsenoside compounds, but supplements often fall short.
  • Of the products tested, Spring Valley’s Korean Ginseng is among those that passed all of ConsumerLab.com’s tests.

Probiotics    
Probiotics are live microorganisms (in most cases, bacteria) that are similar to the beneficial microorganisms naturally found in the human gut. These “good bacteria” are used to prevent and alleviate many different conditions but particularly those that affect the gastrointestinal tract. Probiotics have been shown to help regulate digestion and treat vaginal infection.

Scam: Probiotics are filled with living microorganisms that can die if the product is not properly made, shipped and stored. Of the 13 products we tested, more than half of the products did not contain the labeled amount of probiotics, and one contained as little as 7% of its listed amount.


Solutions:

  • Watch for an asterisk on the packaging. Scamming companies will often claim a certain number of CFUs (Colony Forming Units) on their label, using an asterisk to footnote that this was the number “at the time of manufacture.” Be aware that an amount of probiotics listed “at time of manufacture” doesn’t tell you how many you’ll get when purchased, which can be much lower.
  • Probiotics that have been shown to work in irritable bowel syndrome, vaginal infections, and antibiotic-related diarrhea typically provide 1 billion or more live organisms per day, although this may vary and be somewhat lower for children.
  • Keep probiotics in a cool, dry place out of sunlight. If ordered online, request refrigerated shipping.
  • Of the products tested, AdvoCare’s Probiotic Restore is one that contained the amount of CFUs promised on the label.

Valerian
Valerian is used as a natural sedative designed to help you de-stress or sleep well. It is commonly found in relaxation drinks.

Scam: More than 70% of valerian supplements that we tested failed for not containing the labeled or minimum expected amount of valerian. In one product, we couldn’t find any valerian. Even worse, there is a risk of contamination from lead, as found in several of the products tested. 


Solutions:

  • Give valerian a few weeks for maximum sleep effect.
  • Look for a product that provides about 600 mg of an extract or 2 to 3 grams of dried herb – take it about 2 hours before bedtime.

Coconut Water
Fresh coconut water – the liquid inside green coconuts – is filled with electrolytes that can help hydrate and replenish your body.

Scam: Of the three biggest brands sold today, only one out of three actually contained the electrolytes that they list on their labels.


Solution:

  • If you just drink coconut water for its taste, then falling short on electrolytes is not a problem. But if you want hydration after serious exercise, choose one that delivers at least 110 mg of sodium per serving.
  • Of the products tested, bottled Zico coconut water actually contains all of the electrolytes promised.

Vitamins and Minerals

  • Know what you need for your age and gender and make sure a supplement does not provide too much of any vitamin or mineral. You can check your Recommended Daily Allowance and upper limit of vitamins and minerals at ConsumerLab.com/RDAs.
  • ConsumerLab.com provides reviews of multivitamins and supplements with specific vitamins and minerals. These reviews include information on which products are not contaminated with heavy metals, deliver their listed ingredients, and break apart properly to release their ingredients.

Article written by Tod Cooperman, MD
President, ConsumerLab.com