Your Quick Guide to Vetting Dietary Supplements

By Marilee Nelson |

Nothing takes the place of eating a micronutrient rich organic whole food diet. Unfortunately, our fast paced no time to cook lifestyles make high quality whole food supplementation a must for many of today’s busy families. In addition, nutrient depletion in our soil due to modern farming techniques, food processing, and the addition of harmful chemicals to our foods supports the fact that dietary supplements such as multivitamins, antioxidants, vitamin D, herbs, and probiotics have become staples in most American households. In fact, it’s estimated that about 77% of Americans take supplements1. This is up about 25% from just 7 years ago2 and indicates a positive sign that people are taking their health more seriously. We (Marilee, Kelly, and Allison) have been taking supplements for years and they’ve been an integral part of our healing journey for both us and our families. However, we’re also very careful about which brands we use, and hold our supplements to the same non-toxic safety standards we do our food and household products.

In other words, we’ve learned how to read labels, spot suspicious ingredients, vet a company’s commitment to quality assurance and control, and have familiarized ourselves with the industry’s most high-quality, human-friendly, and ethical brands. Here’s what you need to know about vetting dietary supplements.

Look for Whole Foods Nutritional Supplements

You want your supplements like you want your food: whole and real. The problem is, most dietary supplement brands contain nutrients sourced from cheap synthetic raw materials. Now, these companies would have you believe these chemical nutrients are just as good as their natural counterparts. And there is some research to back this up for certain nutrients. However, commonsense, and another growing body of research3, says otherwise. For example, one study found that naturally-sourced vitamin E was absorbed two times better than it’s synthetic cousin4. Another study showed the synthetic form of vitamin B12, cyanocobalamin, was excreted three times more in urine than its natural form, methylcobalamine5.

You can typically decipher a whole foods-based supplement from a synthetic by reading the label. If it says: “Whole Foods Based Supplement”, then tells you what each nutrient comes from (eg: iodine from kelp, omega-3 blend from algae, vitamin c from acerola cherry), you’re good-to-go.

Why You Need to Avoid Excipients

Excipients are non-nutritive powders added to capsules or tablets as binders, fillers, lubricants (to make those big tablets easier to swallow), anti-caking agents, or to make supplements slide through manufacturing equipment easier. Some, like rice starch or rice flour, are harmless and not cause for concern. However, it’s the chemical excipients like magnesium stearate/vegetable stearate/stearic acid, calcium stearate, silicone dioxide, titanium dioxide, and talc/magnesium silicate you want to avoid.

Again, the FDA and supplement companies will tell you these excipients are GRAS (generally recognized as safe)...especially given the small quantities used in manufacturing. However, their effects can be cumulative if you take several supplements a day for years and years. To give a couple examples, ingredients like talc have been linked to an increased risk of stomach cancer when ingested6, titanium dioxide has been shown to induce intestinal inflammation in animal studies7, and magnesium stearate/stearic acid is often derived from genetically modified cottonseed oil...which we recommend avoiding in food and supplements.

Buy From Companies Who Follow cGMP Practices

cGMP stands for “Current Good Manufacturing Practices” and is the gold standard for quality and safety in the food, drug, and supplement industry. Given recent crack downs on dietary supplement manufacturers, most companies do adhere to cGMP standards for manufacturing...but not all. Since the industry is still largely self-policing you do have to do some homework. The easiest way to do this is to visit the company’s website to find out about their manufacturing practices and testing of raw materials for contaminants and identity. Some facilities get cGMP certifications from third parties like the United States Pharmacopeia or Natural Products Association, which is a good thing. However, those same companies may use inferior ingredients in their products and loads of excipients and preservatives, so we wouldn’t automatically snub a company just because they’re not cGMP certified.

You can also pick up the phone and call the company to inquire about their quality control, quality assurance, certifications of analysis of raw materials, and third-party testing practices. A reputable company will be more than happy to answer all your questions thoroughly.

Watch Out for “Other Ingredients”

It’s shocking how many popular, mainstream brands of supplements, especially those intended for children, contain harmful dyes, sugars, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, shellacs (like carnauba wax which is also an ingredient in car wax!) and toxic excipients like MSG in the form of yeast, yeast extracts, and “natural” flavors or artificial “flavors”. The good news is, it’s easy to spot these ingredients under “Other Ingredients” and move onto the next brand.

Know That Pharmaceutical-Grade Supplements are Usually, but Not Automatically, Safer

The term “pharmaceutical grade” is applied to supplements that are supposedly manufactured to the same standards as pharmaceuticals. Unfortunately, this term can be meaningless given the self-policing nature of the industry. That said, there are some excellent whole foods based supplement companies who actually do adhere to pharmaceutical manufacturing standards, but please do your research before taking any company at face-value (or paying extra). Fortunately, these supplements are usually available through doctors-only, which means you can talk with your practitioner about their experience in vetting of the company in addition to your own research.

Be Wary of Buying Supplements from Third-Party Sellers

We do not recommend buying supplements from third-party sellers because you really have no idea how they’ve been stored (in someone’s hot garage or moldy basement), their expiration date, or if they’ve been re-packed. If you buy from places like Amazon, make sure they come direct from the manufacturer.

A Few of Our Favorite Clean Supplement Brands

Since everyone’s nutritional needs, health goals, and overall concerns are unique we want you to feel empowered to find your own favorite supplements and to work with a practitioner to determine your specific needs.. As a starting point, here are some of our time-tested excipient-free favorites:

As a final note, this information is intended to help you choose safer supplements...but there’s tons more to say about ingredient quality, absorbability, formulations, genetic factors, etc. So if you’re unsure what you need, seek out the advice of a nutritionist or qualified integrative health practitioner.

Marilee Nelson

Marilee Nelson is an Environmental Toxins expert who has spent nearly 30 years advocating for the chemically-sensitive and chronically-ill. She is a Board Certified Nutritionist, Certified Bau-Biologist and Bau-Biology Inspector and specializes in Food As Medicine. She has helped thousands of families and individuals identify, heal and recover from toxic exposures and is on a mission to revolutionize the way American families view their health.