What Is the Truth About Real Nutritional Supplements?

The Internet is full of misinformation and marketing - here's how to discern supplement fact from fiction.

By Dr. J.E. Williams | | Reading Time: 4 minutes

real evidence-based nutritional supplements

Supplement prescribing can be difficult. Even for doctors trained and experienced in clinical nutrition and functional medicine, getting the right match between a nutritional supplements and a patient is tricky. It’s often more art than science. Here’s my advice on how to find accurate evidence on real nutritional supplements and test their effectiveness.

Fake Nutrition News

The average natural health consumer is unprepared to choose the best product for their specific needs. With all of the misinformation, unqualified blogging, and self-authenticated “health expert” marketers, people seldom have the right information to choose the perfect product.

Novelty gets promoted for its newness. But, is simply new, different, or actually better? Without a medical background or access to the latest nutrition research, how do you navigate the supplement maze successfully?

What about parents of children with complex medical problems? When conventional medicine is not sufficient or has catastrophic adverse effects, how does a mom know which nutritional supplement is safe and effective for her child?

Here are some tips from my 30 years of experience in nutritional medicine on how to be a discerning natural pill popper.

Establish Company Criteria

In the US, there is no government oversight committee or professional association that reviews and approves supplements. However, a few trusted services are worth mentioning. Around the longest, ConsumerLab.com provides unbiased reviews through independent testing. The other, Journal of Consumer Health on the Internet, requires subscription access, but has a library of accurate health information on subjects beyond just supplements.

Supplement companies do not have to declare all ingredients in their product. They do not have to prove that what they claim to be in their product is actually in it. Professional standards help reduce, but don’t assure, the risk of not getting the right stuff.

Not all supplements are formulated equally. Once you think a supplement is right for you, learn about the company behind the pill.

Dr. Williams’ Supplement Company 5-Point Criteria

To meet Dr. Williams’ standards, a company must:

  1. Provide services and products only to licensed healthcare professionals and pharmacies, and their patients.
  2. Detail product specifications, preferably by an independent laboratory, including purity, fillers, and additives on every product, upon request.
  3. Provide professional technical consulting by a scientist or physician, not just a customer service or sales representative, five days a week during regular business hours.
  4. Ensure accurate labeling of all active ingredients, including extract percentages and specific amounts.
  5. Provide expiration dates either labeled on products or upon request.

Evidence-based Nutritional Supplements

Once you know the company has integrity and that the product they claim to sell is actually in the capsule or tablet, find out if that supplement has real health value by learning the evidence.

The first step to verification is visiting a website like ConsumerLab.com. These folks review the science for you. They also test a variety of supplement products for contamination and assure that what’s on the label is in the bottle and that the claimed dosage is correct.

Evidence-based medicine means there is clinical research or documented history of safe and effective use to back up a product or a medication’s claim. Evidence-based nutrition is a new field. You’ll find lots of information on the Internet, but it takes time to discover the real value of a supplement.

If you want to do research, log on to PubMed. Type in a nutrient, like vitamin E, and a condition, like cardiovascular disease, and a list of published scientific articles will appear.

Since nutrition science is a relatively new field, you’ll find many contradictory reports: one says it does wonders and the other reports the same supplement as worthless. Keep looking. One study doesn’t have the final word on a product. However, if most of the research is favorable, then go ahead and add it to your pill list.

Be Wary of Expert Opinion

Just because a product is endorsed by an MD or ND doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Many endorsements are paid to advertise as part of marketing plans. Require the company to assure that their medical advisory board or physician endorser is qualified in clinical nutrition. Are they actively engaged in product development or have extensive clinical experience? Or, is this “expert” involved in just marketing and sales.

Another marketing trick is using patient claims and testimonials. Demand evidence that the claim made is true. Real evidence is not merely opinion, but facts like before and after laboratory results. Bots can populate reviews on Amazon, there is little way to assure that these are real people, honestly reporting on a product they use.

Yet, not everyone who claims supplements or a particular diet cured them is dishonest. People experience cures all the time from all sorts of therapies, diets, herbs, supplements, and even from no treatment. What’s important is whether it will work for you, and the next person, and the next. If it was effective for a one in a thousand or a million, that’s not a cure, but a tribute to the body’s remarkable healing power called the placebo effect.

Make Friends

Establish a healthy partnership with a wise doctor who is well-experienced in nutritional and functional medicine. Review their background. Find out their clinical philosophy of care. Confirm that they abide by an evidence-based approach. Respect their time. Do your research first, and establish a health care plan including specific supplements and regular testing to track your progress.

Test Your Results

There’s nothing like results to qualify the value of a supplement. For example, if your LDL cholesterol is too high, or Vitamin D3 (tested as Vitamin D, 25-Hydroxy) is deficient, get blood tested every 3-4 months to see if you’re improving. If there is no improvement, the pill is not working, the dosage is too low, or your body is not processing it adequately. Learn how to interpret your blood tests. If the numbers on your lab test are improving, you made a good choice.

You’ll have to decide for yourself. How much can you spend each month on nutritional supplements? Who is the best doctor for you? Are you getting better as proven by improved blood test results, reduced symptoms, and a greater sense of wellbeing?

Be a discerning supplement user. You be the judge for what’s best for you.