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The world of dietary supplements is a $35 billion industry that continues to grow even in this uncertain, inflationary economy we’re in. There are probably more than 80,000 different dietary supplements available in the marketplace, and the research shows that nearly three-fourths of American adults take supplements regularly.

The reason I say “probably” when it comes to the number of dietary supplements available is because these companies and products operate in a mostly unregulated, free market.

Without any oversight from government agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), how are consumers supposed to know what supplements aren’t safe and which ones are the real deal? As it turns out, it’s up to each one of us to do our own research and make our own decisions.

A Different Set Of Rules

As the FDA website states, the agency does regulate both finished dietary supplement products and dietary ingredients. However, they do this “under a different set of regulations than those covering conventional foods and drug products.”

Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), manufacturers and distributors of dietary supplements and dietary ingredients “are prohibited from marketing products that are adulterated or misbranded.”

According to the FDA, this means that “these firms are responsible for evaluating the safety and labeling of their products before marketing to ensure that they meet all the requirements of DSHEA and FDA regulations.”

In other words, companies are on their own and under an honor system when it comes to following the laws, regulations, and guidelines. The FDA will not get involved and review a product until after it has hit the market and is found to cause problems or it receives numerous complaints.

Consumers Are On Their Own In A Free, Unregulated Market

A close up of a hand holding a variety of different vitamins and supplements

There are a handful of databases where companies who make supplements can voluntarily register their products. One example is from the Therapeutic Research Center. However, these databases are by no means a complete list of every supplement available.

Because of the freedom in this industry, anyone can create a supplement and sell it. They don’t have to register it anywhere or prove that it’s safe and effective. Instead, any claims they make about the supplement must be vetted in the marketplace by consumers.

It’s up to the marketplace to determine if the product is safe and the claims are true. The FDA can not take a supplement off the market until the product is deemed to be mislabeled or unsafe.

This doesn’t mean, though, that the FDA is completely hands-off. They do actively monitor most supplements via consumers reporting adverse effects.

With Freedom Comes Risk And Responsibility

The free, unregulated supplement market might initially feel like the wild west. But in theory, the lack of regulation incentivizes companies to be honest and truthful about their products and encourages them to put a safe product in the hands of consumers. It won’t do a business any good to sell a harmful product backed by lies. That’s the quickest way for a company to fail.

However, not everyone is on the up and up. And, some do want to make a quick buck. This means that it’s each individual consumer’s responsibility to properly discern product claims, do the research, and make the decision that’s best for them. It’s also very easy to consult your healthcare provider if you need some professional advice.

How To Tell If A Supplement Is Safe

Does this free market approach leave open the possibility that someone will be harmed before any action is taken by the FDA? Yes, it does. That’s a reality that every consumer of supplements needs to accept. The best advice I’ve heard when dealing in a free market is “if in doubt, don’t.”

The good news is that there are a plethora of safe supplements—like vitamins, minerals, or multivitamins—that might actually improve your health. And, there is a way to tell which products are legit and which are more of a risk.

The OPSS Scorecard

The dietary supplement market has been operating unregulated for more than 25 years, and there have been instances where a product has been deemed unsafe or misbranded.

To help consumers make good supplement choices, the Department of Defense’s Operation Supplement Safety program has created a scorecard with seven yes-or-no questions. The OPSS Scorecard helps consumers evaluate a product by asking questions about the label on the supplement container. These questions include:

  1. Is any one of these third-party certification seals on the product label? (the checklist shows the third-party certification images to look for: BSCG, NSF, USP, and Informed Sport)
  2. Are there less than six ingredients on the Supplement Facts label?
  3. Is the label free of the words proprietary, blend, matrix, or complex?
  4. Can you easily pronounce the name of each ingredient on the Supplement Facts label?
  5. Is the amount of caffeine listed on the label 200 mg or less per serving? (If caffeine is not listed, mark “Yes”)
  6. Is the label free of questionable claims or statements?
  7. Are all the % Daily Values (% DV) on the Supplement Facts label less than 200%? (If % DV is not listed, mark “No”)

If you can answer “yes” to at least four of these questions, then the supplement should be safe to try. Less than four is “a no-go,” says the DOD. It’s also a “no-go” if the supplement contains any ingredients on their Prohibited List.

The next time you are looking to buy supplements, the DOD’s OPSS scorecard is a great tool for helping you determine if you want to spend your hard-earned money. It’s also a good idea to consult your healthcare provider before trying anything new in the supplement world.

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