Countless individuals everyday take supplements, ranging from prescription drugs to natural herbs and minerals; but where do these come from? What is the backstory behind this growing industry?
Currently, there are far too many categories of dietary supplements to describe in detail; however, there are a handful of popular varieties, and essential information about their creation that the consumers are most likely oblivious of.
As with any consumable product, these pills, powders, and liquids are examined through quality control, safety, and the best of which undergoing single or double blind tests. The world of dietary supplements can be shrouded in mystery, but navigating it simply takes practice.
Let’s first look at where supplements come from. There are varying sources used when manufacturers are looking to bottle a product, and no, they’re not all simply crushed plants and herbs.
First, there is the natural source. This process involves a plant, mineral, or animal source that is crushed or distilled into a concentrated form. For example, when a specific vitamin is needed from a vegetable, the plant will be crushed and the oil saved, then further, solitary vitamins are extracted for specific supplements. Fairly simple.
Second, enters synthetics. Synthetics consist of two forms - nature-identical synthetic, and completely synthetic. As one would assume, one of these is slightly “healthier” than the other. The word synthetic can raise distain when describing consumables; however, many products in the world of supplementation are completely, or at least partially synthetic.
The primary difference between these two is the shape. Nature-identical synthetics are synthetic; however, they exactly mimic the molecular shape of the vitamin or mineral. On the other hand, completely synthetic supplements are formed in a different shape, and this factor can make proper absorption an issue. Products are often made synthetically to reduce costs that would be incurred by obtaining a natural source of the desired compound.
Third, we have food cultured supplements. Whenever one hears the word cultured, they should know that the process involves bacteria. Products created with live cultures are often digestive enzymes, pro and pre-biotics. These substances are grown in yeast or algae, lending to a more bioavailable state. On occasion, these cultured supplements are combined with their synthetic counterparts to increase potency. In any case, the live cultures are a more natural option to the previous category.
Finally, there are food based supplements; however, these are not so ubiquitous as the other forms due to the whole foods low potency. One shouldn’t misunderstand, whole foods are the best source for a human to obtain vitamins and minerals; however, when looking to mass produce specific substances, whole foods can be much less cost effective than cultures or synthetics.
How does one really know the supplement they’re buying is of sufficient quality? Not an entirely easy answer, and the solution leaves much up to the consumer. Now, the supplement industry is, contrary to popular opinion, regulated by the FDA; however, this regulation is sub par to say the least. Some view this as a positive, due to the freedom granted manufacturers, but there are of course some that react with scepticism and angst upon hearing the lack of oversight. The FDA has the power to remove any dietary supplement from circulation if they deem it possesses an “unsafe” ingredient, or if the product employs false labelling; although, this happens very infrequently.
Each dietary supplement must adhere to strict labelling laws, and this is where education on the part of the consumer is key. Ingredients must all be clearly stated on the product’s label, from highest to lowest in quantity. The only exception would be “proprietary blends”, a term used for when a company is wishing to protect their formula and does not disclose the exact amounts of active ingredient.
If one is wishing to remain on the safe side, avoid proprietary blends and select a supplement with clear ingredients and exact amounts, granted they have at least a rudimentary knowledge of supplementation. Before purchasing a supplement, one should conduct some independent research. Investigate the ingredient or ingredients by looking for peer-reviewed articles about clinical studies, and read reviews from prior consumers; which leads the next factor in quality.
The best products are backed by research. Not all supplement companies take the extra step to conduct third-party research on their product; however, those that do simply wish the customers to know their product works. This is the safest form of insurance on the efficacy of a product. On the other hand, various manufacturers will simply quote previous studies on that specific ingredient, claiming that it has been proven effective in the past.
This method of research backing is not as strong of a guarantee than the first, due to many factors such as amount of said ingredient, and quality of the original study; however, it is better than not having research behind it. Overall, be sure these studies have been conducted on humans, and not other animals or bacteria, and a third party will always be more objective than self-conducted research by the supplement manufacturer.
It may seem like pushing out into uncharted waters when considering supplementation; however, luckily these companies want the consumers to experience the best results, leading to further purchases. Also, even though the FDA may not be watching closely, supplement manufacturers are required to operate by Good Manufacturing Practices, or GMPs.
Therefore, when examining a product’s label, one should look for indications of good manufacturing practices, the various ingredients, and the quantity of those ingredients. Taking the time to educate oneself on supplementation and the effects of certain substances on the body is well worth the time. This learning will not only help one purchase supplements safer and wiser, but also simply give the individual a better understanding of how their body works - a topic that sadly, many know very little about.
Information Is Power
Arguably the most important point to be made about supplement consumerism is self education. Without at least a rudimentary knowledge of physiology, biology, or general health and the food industry, buying supplements will be comparable to driving in a blizzard. Sure, one might make it home safe, but the chance of a wreck just increased by 80%. However, this should not be misconstrued as preaching against supplements - any kind of consumerism has risks - rather, this should serve as a reminder of a commonly overlooked aspect of purchasing supplements, or anything for that matter.
Realize a goal
The consumer first needs a reason to take this supplement or supplements at all. The specific goal is arbitrary here; however, it should be personal, and hopefully focused on the betterment of one’s health. Next, gather a list of one or a few products that will most efficiently aid that goal. Sounds simple enough, but now comes the part most consumers don’t want to do: the actual work.
Modern society has somewhat evolved into a pill culture; meaning that most individuals would rather take a magic pill to reach success than commit to the dedication involved, and embark on that journey that very well may not be easy. Anything worthwhile will never come easy, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The process plays a pivotal role in making those actions stick, and remain a part of one’s character; therefore, this can only be done through the process. Pills and powders alone won’t give way to positive life changes.
Now the good news
Being dedicated to an elevated awareness of one’s own health and fitness is one of the best things an individual can be involved in. Humans only have one body, and it’s used every second of every day. Many people delve deep into the inner workings of cars, planes, bicycles, and computers; however, when asked about the functions of their own bodies, there might be an awkward silence.
In any case, devoting a few minutes of one’s week to consistent discovery of physiology and anatomy will open up lifestyle changes for the better, and of course, make selecting supplements a much easier task.
Discovering a goal, selecting helpful supplements, and finally researching their proven effects is undoubtedly the best method for nutritional success. The world of physiology and supplementation is vast, so one should begin with small steps pertaining to their current health and fitness journey, then simply keep digging deeper.
A relevant question. This factor depends on the category of supplement, the company producing it, and the current state of the supplement market. Recently, the supplement industry has gained much popularity, at least in the realm of ergogenic aids (performance enhancers), mostly sports related; therefore, pricing can become very competitive. Another important factor affecting price is the quality of the product. In this case, the phrase “you get what you pay for” is worth thinking on.
As was stated above, supplements are derived from differing sources, some better than others. Naturally, the synthetic options will be easier to mass produce, and subsequently cheaper. On the other side, there are naturally obtained nutrients and live culture supplements. These require more work on part of the manufacturer, and will be slightly more expensive, but as one would assume, generally better.
Moreover, when shopping for quality supplements, one should not immediately gravitate towards the cheapest option. As with food, low grade products can contain harmful materials; in light of this, set aside a few minutes to research from what source the product was obtained, and its bioavailability.
Finally, a short overview of the essential points. Initially discussed, was what one is exactly dealing with. These products can come from a number of sources, the choice is up to the consumer whether they wish one or the other. Quickly after, quality and sustainability were touched on. How can one determine quality? Is chronic use of a supplement sustainable?
The determination of quality lies in the research. One should look for a company abiding by GMPs, and that has conducted third-party experiments - the best of which being double-blind placebo studies. Also, consumers need to focus on what is best for the long run. Avoid fads and flashy offers of new and improved formulas. It would be wise to stick to the basics, filling the gaps in the diet to promote longevity, and performance.
The pivotal aspect of supplement selection is education. To be concise, one should educate themselves first on what is relevant to their current goal, and then continue following that journey of self improvement, naturally discovering more about physiology and the body along the way. This kind of education by no means needs to be boring. It is not simply googling specific compounds from product labels and memorizing their properties; rather, digging into how vitamins, minerals, enzymes, hormones, and macronutrients work synergistically for improving quality of life.
To round out the experience of supplement shopping, price was mentioned. This is an incredibly variable theme, and will change continually. The most important point however, is to not simply select the cheapest or most widely promoted. It all comes back to research. Consumers should give the product a background check, and determine whether its benefits are worth the cost.
In any case, supplements can be extremely beneficial to any individual looking to improve their performance. Good things will come to those who put in the work; therefore, prospective supplement users should find their goals, determine the path, and stay committed.
It may be strange at first, pulling away from the pack through self awareness and consistency; however, with time, these things become second nature, and personal traits rather than resolutions. One should find the products that work for them, there is no one size-fits-all when it comes to the human body.