Nutritional Supplement Buying Guide
This section will give you an overview of the supplement industry and give you some tips on how to navigate the choices available to you.
How supplements are sold
The nutritional supplement industry is huge, and thousands of companies are trying to sell you their products. It can definitely get overwhelming.
Here are the major ways that supplements are sold:
- Retail stores such as GNC and Wal-Mart.
- Mail-order companies such as Puritan’s Pride. We would also include the larger internet retailers in this category such as VitaCost or Vitabase.
- MLM companies such as Herbalife or Nature’s Sunshine.
- Infomercial companies such as ITV.
We do not endorse any particular company or particular way of selling products at NutritionalTree. However, you should know that you are more likely to get better prices on products sold by either of the first two methods. We will examine this issue in more detail in another section.
The nutritional supplement industry is remarkably free from government regulation. As a result, it is policed only from within and by the free market. Companies that are interested in being around for a long time work hard on cultivating a reputation for integrity in their products and policies.
On the other hand, some companies come into the market with a crash and burn philosophy. They spend a large amount of money on advertising, run their business until the government starts asking questions, and then disappear.
With this in mind, we believe that a company’s reputation is the most important indicator of the integrity of their products. NutritionalTree’s goal is to accurately reflect the reputation of each company as well as the reputation of individual products.
We actually calculate a rating for all companies represented on NutritionalTree that sell at least ten different products. The rating is comprised of the average rating of all products. You can use this rating as an indication of a company’s reputation in the marketplace.
To see the current ratings for manufacturers/brands, click here.
About the FDA and FTC
Most supplement consumers are confused about the relationship between the FTC and FDA with the supplement industry. First, here is what each of these federal organizations does in relation to nutritional supplements:
- FDA (Food and Drug Administration) – Regulates food products (which includes dietary supplements). They are primarily interested in keeping supplements safe for use. For example, they test products to ensure that the labeling is correct and that the ingredients are safe. They also regulate the marketing of supplements. For example, manufacturers must not make certain claims about their products without extensive testing. They are especially sensitive about claims that cross a line and promise to cure or treat certain diseases such as cancer or AIDS.
- FTC (Federal Trade Commission) – Works to eliminate deceptive marketplace practices. For example, they are concerned about fraudulent billing, misrepresenting products, and other shady practices. Like the FDA, they are concerned about manufacturers that make unrealistic claims about their products in their marketing materials.
It is important to understand that neither the FDA nor the FTC actually approve any dietary supplements. They do monitor manufacturing facilities that make supplements and they certainly monitor marketing materials, but manufacturers are free to come up with formulas and make products without getting the blessing of the government.
This hands-off approach by the government is both good and bad. It allows the free market to work and gives consumers access to a lot of choices. On the other hand, it opens the door for a lot of manufacturers and retailers to do very shady things. You have probably heard about studies that show that products may not contain the ingredients that the label indicates. This is only one of the ways that manufacturers may try to cut costs and abuse their customers.
Over the next few years, we will probably see legislation that gives the FDA and FTC more power over the dietary supplement industry. However, for the time being, it is important to be informed so that you can make wise decisions about the supplements you buy.
MLM and Infomercials
Billions of dollars of supplements are sold through MLM companies and infomercials each year. Since these are two areas especially prone to consumer abuse, we want to address them a little more specifically.
MLM is also called multi-level marketing, pyramid marketing, and network marketing. You have probably been approached by someone in MLM and asked if you are interested in a particular health product or a chance to make some extra income.
There is nothing wrong with the MLM model, but like any business model, it has a few problems. First, the people doing the sales are usually not trained health professionals, and likely do not know much about health. They may sound fairly knowledgeable, but could be just repeating something they were trained to say. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and you should be slow to take advice about your health from people that are not qualified to give it.
The second problem with MLM is that the prices tend to be very expensive. The MLM model is not an efficient way to get products to market because so many commissions have to be paid out to various levels of distributors.
Infomercials are the thirty minute programs you see on late night TV. There is nothing wrong with infomercials, but that industry has a long history of illegal claims, consumer abuse, and overpriced products. When you hear an infomercial that sounds good, just be wary and do your research before you buy anything.
Things to beware
Here are some things you should very careful of when ordering health products:
- Overpricing. In general, you can expect to pay more for quality products. However, the price is not really dramatic. We have seen pricing that is beyond excessive. For example, we know of MLM companies that sell multi-vitamins for over $100/month.
- Shoddy products. There is little question that some companies are interested in bilking consumers by selling them products with cheap or non-existent raw ingredients. Buy from companies that have a track record for integrity.
- Shady billing practices. Some companies have been known to put their customers on automatic shipments without their permission. Others refuse to give refunds or hassle customers who ask for one. The FTC has shut down many companies that are involved in these types of practices.
This section will help you understand how to evaluate supplements and choose the best one for your needs.
How to research health products
At NutritionalTree, we focus on collecting unbiased consumer reviews. However, before buying products, you might consider doing even more research. Do a quick internet search to check on the reputation of a brand or company. Also, research the ingredients in a product. While few actual products have had clinical studies done on them, there are thousands of studies done on the raw ingredients found in supplements. We recommend sources like http://www.webmd.com or http://www.naturalstandard.com.
Keep reading to learn more about raw ingredients and other things that make a product either good or bad.
Great products contain great raw ingredients. Besides the formula itself, the sourcing of the raw ingredients makes the biggest impact on the effectiveness of the product.
Manufacturers can purchase raw ingredients very inexpensively or they can purchase premium raw ingredients. Just like there are great supplement brands, there are great raw ingredient brands. Great supplement brands tend to have great raw ingredient brands in them.
How can you pick products that have great raw ingredients? There are two ways—first, look at the ingredient label and notice whether the product uses trademarked ingredients (you will see references to trademarks either in the ingredient table or just under it). Second, stick with brands that have great reputations for integrity.
Because the supplement industry is largely unregulated, you should not be shocked to learn that many manufacturers cut corners in their products. In fact, independent tests show that some products’ actual content does not even come close to matching the label. In today’s marketplace, it is entirely possible for companies to manufacture sugar pills and call them weight loss products.
This fact should not scare you. It should just reinforce the point that you need to buy from reputable companies/brands. Reputable companies have extensive quality control procedures in place. For example, they buy their raw ingredients from quality sources, test them to ensure their efficacy before using them, use FDA-approved manufacturing facilities, conduct extensive testing on the finished product, and much more.
Tablets, capsules, or liquid
There is a lot of debate regarding how you should take your supplements. Liquid supplement manufacturers claim that their product is more bio-available (able to be used by the body). Capsules are considered to be superior to tablets because they break down easier in the stomach.
In terms of cost, tablets are usually the most inexpensive, followed by capsules, and then liquid supplements. Liquid products are more expensive because largely because of packaging costs and various shipping costs which end up embedded in the price.
In recent years, technology has led to great improvement in tablets. If you buy your products from a reputable company, they do disintegration testing to ensure that the tablets are breaking down quickly in the stomach. This is very important because if they do not break down, they simply pass through the colon and are eliminated.
For many people, it makes sense to pay the higher price for liquid supplements. However, if you cannot afford them, just buy your tablets or capsules from a reputable company.
Claims / Testimonials
It is a sad fact that many companies use blatantly illegal tactics to sell their products. Two of the most common practices are illegal claims and testimonials that make claims. Unfortunately, they often get away with these tactics.
If you see a company making claims, you should be wary. Here is an example of illegal claims you might see:
- Reduces blood sugar levels by 20 points in 20 days.
- Guaranteed to help you lose ten pounds a week.
- Kills cancer cells.
It is important for you to understand that these kinds of claims are made purely for marketing purposes and are completely fictional. When evaluating a product, you need to just learn to ignore these kinds of claims and focus on more objective data.
You should also know that these kinds of claims are illegal, and call into question the overall integrity of the company.
Be wary of claims embedded in testimonials. For example, a testimonial might read as follows:
On the first day I used your product, I lost 4 pounds. Within the first month, I lost thirty pounds and I did not even have to exercise! Jean, North Dakota
The FDA and FTC view this kind of testimonial as making illegal claims. Also, if you are reading it on a retail website, there is the potential that it is not even a real testimonial.
In summary, view claims as marketing hype and an indication of the integrity of the brand.
What results you can expect from supplements
You will see dramatic stories about supplements on NutritionalTree. However, in our opinion, your experience will vary widely based on your individual situation and what you are taking.
Many products are unlikely to make you feel much different—at least not in a dramatic way. Typical vitamins and minerals are not likely to give you a quick energy boost or correct a problem within a day. They are more likely to slowly chip away at deficiencies in your body that could be causing problems.
Comparing the results between supplements and drugs is a little difficult. Drugs tend to have a sledgehammer effect while supplements are like a chisel. Many people choose supplements over drugs because they are often much safer and do not have side effects. However, do not expect supplements to work as fast.
Though they do not work as fast, supplements can make a dramatic difference in your health over time, and there are thousands of clinical studies that support their use.
Are any products truly unique?
This is a great question. Almost every company tries to claim that they have a unique product. This is especially true in the MLM and infomercial industry. They usually have a great story behind the development of their product.
In reality, very few health products are truly unique, and if you find one, it probably just does not work. In the cases where a new product clearly is working, competitors are quick to come out with similar products (patent protection is rarely possible). There are certainly variations in quality among different types of supplements, but rarely can a product or company claim to be in a truly unique position.
Be wary of claims of uniqueness. They are usually made to justify a high price. Spend some time looking for alternatives, and you are likely to save a lot of money.
Why bad products work
We have been perplexed over the years over a certain phenomenon. Very often, consumers will call us with incredible stories about products that we firmly believe are junk. We have come to the conclusion that when we hear one of those stories, one of the following is true:
- The body healed itself naturally over time.
- Other things happened in the consumer’s life at the same time that brought about the results.
- The placebo effect.
We do not discount any of these reasons. With regards to the placebo effect, there is little doubt that the mind is a powerful agent of the healing process. That being said, we encourage you to remember that while you may read a powerful story about a product on NutritionalTree, that does not necessarily mean that the product was responsible for the results.
NutritionalTree is a place where you can find out what the marketplace thinks about particular supplements or find out which supplements the marketplace thinks work the best in a particular category. Actual consumers provide this information by writing product reviews and rating products on a five-star scale.
How NutritionalTree can help you
If you want to research a particular product, do a search on its name and then read what the marketplace has to say. When consumers review a product, they assign a rating from one to five stars. All ratings are averaged to come up with the five-star rating for the product.
If you are interested in finding out which products the marketplace most believe in within a certain category, you can navigate to that category and see a listing where products are sorted by rating. For example, you can see which multi-vitamin NutritionalTree visitors like best on this page here.
If you see a product without any consumer reviews, that does not mean that it is not a good product—it probably just means that it is not too well-known. This is actually quite common in the industry because larger companies have a large number of available products that are not best sellers. If you are considering such a product, consider the reputation of the manufacturer as your best indication of the quality. We do not rate manufacturers/brands unless they have a large number of products, but you can see the top twenty rated manufacturers/brands here.
NutritionalTree does not endorse products
NutritionalTree does not publicly endorse any product or company. While product pages contain product information that endorses the product, that information is provided by the manufacturer of the product and is labeled "From the Manufacturer".
All links to other sites on NutritionalTree are either ads that are purchased by retailers or helpful links to let you know where to buy a product if you decide it is the one you want. Please do not assume that any link or text represents any type of endorsement by NutritionalTree.
There is a good reason why NutritionalTree does not endorse products. That is because we simply do not know enough about all the products on the site. We would be making endorsements without adequate information, so we prefer to let the product ratings come from consumers themselves.
The closest we come to endorsing companies is providing our manufacturer/brand overall rating top ten. This is a list of the top ten supplement manufacturers/brands that have the highest rating across all their products. We do not include companies/brands in this list unless they have at least ten products on NutritionalTree. You can see the current top ten here.
About consumer reviews that you see on retail websites
More and more retail websites (including supplement retailers) are collecting consumer reviews and posting them on their own sites. While these reviews are helpful, there are two reasons to be wary of reviews that appear directly on retail sites. First, those reviews could be fraudulently written by the retailer. Second, the FTC does not approve of testimonials being used by retailers if the testimonials include health claims. So, in effect, the reviews you read may not be legal.
NutritionalTree is an objective review site that sells no retail products and audits the reviews that are submitted. Without question, a few manufacturers and retailers try to manipulate the ratings that their products have received on the site. However, we have certain controls in place that greatly help to keep the integrity of our reviews as high as possible. As a result, you can feel safe that the reviews you read on NutritionalTree are legitimate and reflect actual people and health situations.
As a side note, NutritionalTree makes its data available to any manufacturer or retailer that wants to use it. You can learn more about this program here.
You can help NutritionalTree help others
If you find the information on NutritionalTree valuable, we encourage you to help us make it better. You can do this in one of two ways. First, submit your own reviews of products you have tried. Second, report any abuse that you see. NutritionalTree reads every review that is submitted and we reject those that appear to have an ulterior motive. However, we may miss some from time to time. If you see anything that concerns you, contact us here.