Updated: Nov 6, 2020
Dietary supplement sales have skyrocketed during the pandemic. The increase is driven by health concerns, of course, as well as supplements’ relative affordability. Despite the economic downturn, consumers still view supplements as an affordable way to boost their health. They’ve turned to vitamin C, zinc and copper among other vitamins, minerals and herbs. Fear and anxiety are powerful sales motivators.
Do we need these vitamins in a bottle? And more importantly, how do we know they are safe?
Whether you need a vitamin or mineral supplement depends on many factors, including your age, gender, underlying health conditions … and how much you already get from the foods and beverages you consume. If you have a vitamin/mineral deficiency, your immunity might be lower. But if you don’t have a deficiency, taking more vitamins and minerals won’t boost your immunity. As the NIH said, “It’s like baking bread that needs one packet of yeast. Adding more yeast won’t do any good.”
Even if we can benefit from a supplement, how do we know the bottle on the shelf (or Amazon) is safe? Because supplements are regulated as food and not drugs in this country, they don't have to prove that they are safe - or even that they work - before they’re sold in stores. By law, companies can bring products directly to market carrying claims about what the product does. If a product later proves to be harming people, the burden is then on the FDA to prove that the product is unsafe, and take the producer to court.
So, you need to be savvy when it comes to buying and using supplements. What should you look for? What should you avoid?
For one, avoid mega doses of vitamins and minerals. The RDA suggests the minimum daily intake needed to prevent a deficiency; Age, gender, lifestyle and health concerns all factor in. Consult your doctor or nutritionist to determine if - based on your age, activity level or health issues - you might need more than the RDA. Without that, a dose well in excess of 100% of the RDA is probably too much.
Look for certifications from a third party regulator, like US Pharmacopeia or the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF). You can also look for the NSF logo on products themselves. NSF independently certifies some supplements such as fish oils and multivitamins after testing products/ingredients for harmful levels of contaminants, like heavy metals, pesticides and herbicides. College and professional athletes should also look for the NSF Certified for Sport® mark indicating that a product has been tested for banned substances.
To avoid tainted, ineffective or potentially harmful supplements, don’t buy products that claim to work like prescription drugs. Anything that claims to treat an illness or cure a medical condition is a big red flag.
Stay savvy, stay safe. As always, consult your doctor or nutritionist about your individual needs. For more tips, see https://www.fda.gov/food/information-consumers-using-dietary-supplements/tips-dietary-supplement-users