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Supplements can be confusing at best and a con at worst.

When you read around, look at the labels and marketing, and listen to enough people, you can quickly convince yourself that there are at least 20 supplements you MUST take – in fact, you’ll wonder how you stayed alive all this time. Fortunately, there are some good sources of information available.

This article isn’t going to tell you which supplements you need or which are the best. The truth is, sports nutrition is a young science and there’s still a lot we’re not certain of. In fact, today’s popular beliefs about certain supplements could be completely disproved and even reversed in a few years (or less). What I want to do here is help you take the right precautions and source independent and up-to-date information before you make decisions about your supplementation.

The biggest problem

The single biggest problem people encounter when researching information on supplements is that most of the information is biased and/or compromised. This is especially true on the internet, where supplement companies sponsor writers and even set up websites where supplements are favourably reviewed. Of course, supplement information on the internet also comes through fitness and diet consultants, clubs and shops that are all distributors of supplements. So the first question you should ask when assessing any claims about a supplement ingredient or a product is, does the person or body behind the claim have an interest in selling this supplement?

You can quickly convince yourself that there are at least 20 supplements you MUST take – in fact, you’ll wonder how you stayed alive all this time

You believe the claims of such people at your own risk. In the USA, dietary supplements are not approved by the government for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed. There is also no legal requirement for a supplement to be standardised. One precaution is to look out for products that have been voluntarily submitted to the USP (U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention) Dietary Supplement Verification Program and successfully passed the stringent testing and auditing process.

In Australia, there are often big misconceptions about the powers and influence of the TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration), but the fact is that most supplements fall within the ‘listable’ items category, the most lightly regulated category of the TGA. Their only requirement is to provide proof that they don’t contain ingredients that are banned by custom laws. There is no requirement for proof of a product’s claimed benefits.

Here are some other questions you should ask before you splash your hard-earned cash on supplements.

Will it be safe for me?

Many supplements contain active ingredients that can have strong biological effects in the body. This could make them unsafe in some situations. The first thing to check is if the active ingredients of a supplement will interfere with a health condition or a medication (‘drug interaction’) you take. You should ask your doctor, but a couple great medical websites also provide this information and more. WebMD and Mayo Clinic provide overviews for a huge list   of vitamin and supplement active ingredients, along with descriptions of their side effects and drug interactions.

Never substitute supplements for prescription medicines and don’t be tempted into the mentality of “if some is good, then more must be better – hey, it’s just a supplement, right?” Even some vitamins and minerals – e.g. vitamin A, vitamin D and iron – can be toxic when taken in excess.

Do I know what’s in it?

The answer to this is always, “No, not really,” since there is no standardisation. Australians can protect themselves to some extent by buying goods in Australia, where they at least have the protection of the TGA to ensure it does not contain pharmaceuticals or banned substances (especially important to drug-tested athletes). In some territories – notably Mexico, China and some European nations – supplements are frequently produced in the same factories as pharmaceuticals. This can be a problem for drug-tested athletes – there have been several cases of athletes who have returned positive tests due to tainted supplements ordered from overseas. This can be unintentional or deliberate, e.g. putting Sildenifil citrate (the active ingredient of Viagra) in ‘natural’ aphrodisiacs to ensure they work. 

Another red flag are the words ‘proprietary blend’ when the term is used in place of listing some of the actual ingredients. Other times a brand will simply make up the name of a substance. Always look for products that list measures of their active ingredients.

How do I know an active ingredient works?

It’s difficult – even with proper scientific testing, you may find one study contradicts another. Over time, after many studies on the same active ingredient, we can see a majority of studies pointing in the same direction and come to some conclusion. This is what bodies such as the Australian Institute of Sport do in publishing their ABCD Classification System, which ranks sports foods and supplement ingredients into four groups based on scientific evidence and other practical considerations that determine whether a product is safe, legal and effective in improving sports performance.

You can learn more about the active ingredients found in many products at websites such as RxList and Natural Standard (requires membership), which both give good overviews of hundreds of substances. Examine.com goes a step further, as all its supplement pages are backed with citations to scientific papers, A to D ratings for different effects on the body and various activity types, and list substances that each supplement complements and those it counteracts or inhibits.

Do I need all that?

Often brands will have an ‘all-in-one’ type of product (e.g. for muscle gain, recovery, fat loss). The list of ingredients will be just shorter than the Constitution, but have slightly more officiousness. These products offer a collection of ingredients that the marketing alleges are not just vital to your performance, but together they are the package deal of the century. Often, however, the individual amounts of these active ingredients are not enough to have a significant effect (when you take a recommended dose), or you simply don’t need them. In many cases, it’s better to identify products that only have the actual active ingredient you’ve decided you want.

Is this a good brand product?

You can see products reviewed by unbiased sources at websites such as LabDoor, an organisation that buys supplements and sends them to an FDA-registered laboratory for a detailed chemical analysis. ConsumerLab is another great site with comparison tests on brand supplements and it also issues warnings on fraudulent, tainted or dangerous products.

Always remember – supplement your nutrition based on credible information, not rumours and marketing claims.

This website supports the better self-management of consumers health but will not take direct advertising from supplement companies as this may be seen as endorsement by UnconfuseHealth or a compromise to its integrity.

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