Standing in the supplement aisle may make you feel like a deer in the headlights. There are so many brands, it can be hard to know which ones you can trust to ensure you're getting what you're paying for. After all, taking a supplement is meant to improve your health.
There are a few things to keep in mind when making an informed decision about which dietary supplement to choose. The National Institutes of Health acknowledge that you will likely make your decision based on price, quality and availability, but you can also get a recommendation from your doctor or registered dietitian.
First, a Word on Supplement Safety
This may come as a surprise, but the Food and Drug Administration does not approve supplements for safety or efficacy before they hit the market, although it does set something called Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMPs), which include requirements for preparation and storage.
The USP verified mark is set by United States Pharmacopeia and ensures the supplement is tested to contain what is on the label in the stated potencies. This mark also checks for harmful contaminants and makes sure the supplement breaks down so it can be properly absorbed by the body.
Consumer Lab also checks for identity, strength, purity and if the supplement disintegrates appropriately in the body.
NSF is an independent public health testing laboratory that not only tests dietary supplements but also bottled water and home and commercial products.
If you see the words "standardized," "verified" or "certified" on a supplement label without a seal from one of these three groups don't get too excited — these words are not regulated and do not guarantee product quality or consistency, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The 5 Top Vitamin Brands for Safety and Effectiveness
Costco members, rejoice! Many of your favorite bulk store's supplements are USP-verified, including the brand's Daily Multi Tablets, Adult 50+ Multi Tablets and Vitamin D3 2000 IU softgels.
You have to hold a Costco membership to buy Kirkland brand supplements, but since you're buying in bulk, the price may be much lower than purchasing somewhere else.
Buy it: Kirkland Brand Supplements (price varies; Costco or Costco.com)
Thorne supplements adhere to rigid manufacturing processes and are made in the United States. The brand has CGMPs compliance with no failed inspections, produces 30 NSF Certified for Sport products, and it is the first U.S. supplement company to be certified by Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration, another world regulatory organization.
Thorne supplements go through four rounds of testing, from raw material testing to stability, to ensure they are meeting potency requirements up to the expiration date.
Buy it: Thorne Brand Supplements (price varies; Thorne.com)
3. Life Extension
Life Extension is a supplement brand that began in 1980 with 99 percent of their products made in the United States. They won Consumer Lab's award for number one multivitamin and number one omega-3 EPA/DHA for 2020. They also have a Good Manufacturing Practices registration from NSF for quality standards.
Buy it: Life Extension Brand Supplements (price varies; LifeExtension.com)
4. Nature Made
Nature Made holds the title for the number one pharmacist-recommended brand for 14 popular supplements. It was the first company to get a USP verification on many of its products, and the USP seal is prominently displayed on the packaging.
Buy it: Nature Made Brand Supplements (price varies; available at most big box stores, supermarkets and on Amazon)
5. Nordic Naturals
For fish oil supplements, there is no official quality testing standard in the United States, so Nordic Naturals adheres to guidelines set by the European Pharmacopoeia Standard (EPS), Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) and the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega–3 (GOED) when manufacturing its fish oil.
Nordic Naturals uses wild-caught fish for its supplements, which have been used in more than 50 published research studies.
Buy it: Nordic Naturals Brand Supplements (price varies; NordicNaturals.com)
What to Remember When Choosing a Supplement Brand
- Do your research before heading to the store.
- Look for third-party testing.
- Check for allergens on the label.
- If necessary, get a recommendation from your doctor or a registered dietitian.
Do You Need a Supplement?
If you are a healthy adult, chances are you don't need a supplement. You can get all the vitamins and minerals you need daily by eating a balanced diet rich in whole foods: protein (plant or animal), fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy. Whole foods also give you healthy nutrients, such as antioxidants, that you can't get from a supplement, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Some people may need to supplement their diet with a specific vitamin or mineral, and this is usually recommended by a physician or dietitian. For example, if you are recovering from surgery or illness, have problems absorbing nutrients or if you are on a calorie-restricted diet, you may need a supplement.
In addition, if you have increased nutrient needs such as pregnancy or are engaged in high-intensity sports, you may not be able to satisfy your nutrient needs with food alone. And those following a special diet, such as vegans, may need B12 supplementation because they don't eat animal or dairy products, according to September 2017 research published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
Individual vitamin or mineral supplements should only be taken when you have consulted with your health care provider. Some vitamins are harmful if taken in excess, and some are simply not needed and will be excreted without being absorbed.
You should always consult with your doctor before taking a supplement to ensure it does not interact with any medications you may be taking.
Final Reminders on Supplement Safety
Dietary supplement companies are not permitted to market their products as a cure or treatment for any condition. If you see a statement like that on the label, it's wise to put the product back on the shelf.
In addition, the National Institute on Aging notes that you should avoid supplements with ingredients you don't need, and you should remember that just because a supplement has a higher dosage of a nutrient doesn't necessarily mean it's the better choice for you.
- National Institutes of Health: “Dietary Supplement Label Database”
- National Institute on Aging: “Dietary Supplements”
- USP: "USP Verified Mark"
- Consumer Lab
- Life Extension
- Nature Made
- Nordic Naturals
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Vegan Diets: Practical Advice for Athletes and Exercisers"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vitamins, Minerals and Supplements: Do You Need to Take Them?
- Food and Drug Administration: "FDA 101: Dietary Supplements"
- Thorne Supplements
- National Institutes of Health: "Frequently Asked Questions"