Supplements- How to Ensure You Get What You Paid For

Today's post comes from Michael Hull, SAPT intern and all-around nutrition research whiz. Michael is finishing up his degree at George Mason (while working full time!) and also works for which is a superb resource for everything regarding supplement and nutrition research. You can find his personal web site HERE. In short, he is one smart cookie and you would do well to take a gander at his advice! 

Supplements: How To Ensure You Get What You Pay For

I want to tell you a tale of Jack and Jill. Jack and Jill both had some unfortunate experiences buying less than stellar supplements, which they probably could have avoided by reading this blog post (so congratulations to you, dear reader, for being ahead of the game).

Jack’s Fish Oil

Jack has some very high triglycerides (i.e. he had too much fat in his blood. No good!). Both he and his doctor discussed his situation and decided they would try having him take some fish oil supplements to get his triglycerides under control. Jack went out to his local CVS and bought some fish oil pills and dutifully took them over the next month. Upon returning to his doctor, Jack was disappointed to find that his triglycerides had not dropped as much as expected. Unbeknownst to our friend Jack, the pills he had purchased did not contain everything promised on the label and had become oxidized. Essentially, the fish oil had gone bad, causing it to lose some of its triglyceride-lowering power.

This problem is more common than you might think. A study of 32 fish oil pills found that more than 90% of them did not contain all of the beneficial omega-3 content claimed on the label. Many contained less than 70% of the stated omega-3 amount. Half of them had gone rancid. Now, these discrepancies may not be due to any nefarious motives by the Big Fish Oil industry. There could have been oxidation that occurred during the packaging of the product or when the researchers handled them for testing. Seasonal variation in omega-3 content of fish is another possible explanation. For someone who is otherwise healthy, consuming oxidized fish oil will not likely have any deleterious effects, but it may dampen some benefits of the oil. However, if you are like our friend Jack and are trying to improve some blood markers, taking a bad fish oil may yield less substantial results over a consuming a non-oxidized oil.

Jack could have avoided this whole debacle if he had opted for a 3rd party tested and verified fish oil pill. Where can I get these 3rd party tested supplements you ask? I will tell you right after we check in with Jill the gym rat.

Jill’s Protein Powder

Jill is just a girl that wants to make sweet sweet #gainz in the gym. To help achieve her gains goals, she consumes a protein shake on workout days to help support her muscle growth. What Jill doesn’t realize is that the protein powder she is consuming has been tainted with cheap filler products that will most certainly not assist her in building maximum muscle. Some creative minds in the supplement industry have figured out a way to trick the standard quality control measure, called the Kjeldahl method, used to calculate how much protein content is in a powder. By adding in cheap filler products like arginine, glycine, creatine, and taurine the Kjeldahl test can be fooled into thinking the protein powder in question is a quality product.

PRO TIP - If you see crystalline material in your powder it’s an indication of high amounts of taurine. Do yourself a solid and go seek out another brand.

Brands that have used this dishonest tactic in the past include:

Body Fortress, ProSupps, MusclePharm Arnold series, 4 Dimension Nutrition, Designer Whey, Mutant Nutrition, Gaspari Nutrition, Giant Sports Nutrition, Infinite Labs, and Beast Sports Nutrition.

Currently, some of these manufacturers are being sued in court over these practices.

By now, some of you may be wondering how the supplement industry can get away with selling some of these shoddy products. For a better understanding of why the supplement industry is so unregulated, John Oliver has a very informative rant on this topic.

How To Avoid Sketchy Supplements

Luckily, all hope is not lost. There are 3rd party companies that will test a brand's supplements to verify that they contain what the lables say they contain and that they are free from any harmful or illegal substances. These independently verified products are particularly useful for professional or NCAA athletes by helping them avoid unknowingly taking a supplement that has been contaminated with a banned substance. If you, as an athlete, test positive for a banned substance it does not matter if you ingested it unwittingly from a tainted supplement. You will get suspended or otherwise punished regardless; even more reason to ensure your supplements are clean.

There are 4 major players in the supplement testing industry. I’ll go over each one of them below starting with my favorite two: NSF and Informed Choice.


NSF international is one of the better-established testers. Their testing is incredibly thorough and is the certification most NCAA athletes look for when choosing supplements. Each product batch undergoes testing and all products that pass will have the blue NSF seal right on the packaging. To find an NSF certified product, search one of the databases listed below:

NSF Certified Dietary Supplements

NSF Certified Functional Food and Beverages

Informed Choice

The folks at Informed Choice are the new kid on the block but have a stellar reputation for their rigorous testing methods. Informed Choice test for “substances that appear on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Prohibited List, as well as lists from organizations such as the NFL, NCAA, and MLB”. Products that have passed their testing will have a green Informed Choice logo on the label. Certified Products can be found here.

United States Pharmacopeia

The USP has been around for a while now. They will test for things like contaminants, bioavailability, and ensure good manufacturing practices. The USP will also randomly buy samples from the open market to ensure the supplements are still up to par. To find products that have the USP label, check out their site here.

PRO TIP – Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand supplements are all certified by the USP.

Consumer Lab

Last but not least, we have the folks at CL. They also test for substances banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and participate in the Athletic Banned Substances Screening Program (ABSSP). However, unlike the other supplements, they do not put their seal of approval on each product tested. You have to look up supplements on their site beforehand.

Now you are equipped with the knowledge to never be swindled by devious supplement manufacturers ever again. Go forth and buy safe supplements!