How to research supplements – Canada edition
Many supplements have proven health benefits.
Studies show that certain probiotics can prevent antibiotic-associated diarrhea, others can reduce the risk of different diseases (e.g., osteoporosis, neural-tube defects), and many can improve nutrient deficiencies.
But we’ve all heard some of the more “creative” (a.k.a. false) health claims about supplements. Some claims overstretch and twist the truth to make the product seem better than there is proof that it actually is.
They’re doing sales and marketing and want to stand out from their competitors (and make more money from unsuspecting people). That’s their job.
BUT . . .
When it comes to people’s health, I have much less patience because of the misinformation effect.
And, it’s not always easy for practitioners to know which nutrition claims are proven and which are outdated or over-exaggerated. Much of the supplement marketing comes from the corporations themselves (who *should be* sharing credible information, with studies to back them up). And if you’re in Canada, all of the approved health claims (statements about how the product can benefit health) are found right on the product labels, so you can always have a quick look to see if what you’re being told has enough evidence or not.
FUN FACT: In Canada, there are some standard pre-approved health claims that supplement companies can use. But, maybe their products can do more? In this case, companies can conduct high-quality studies to prove it. This is great news because if a good clinical trial can show results, they can submit the evidence and get those fantastic claims right on their product labels.
This article will help you become a savvy health supplement BS detector because I will show you where to go to research supplements!
If you’re curious to know how to verify the real scientific evidence (or lack thereof) for certain supplements—this is for you.
If you want to make sure certain impressive claims aren’t exaggerations—this is for you.
NOTE: While this article includes a few Canadian links, there are lots of other resources listed too. I added an asterisk (*) after the items that are Canada-specific, so if you’re not in Canada, you can skip the ones with the asterisk.
Supplement brands vs. active ingredients
There really are two different angles to researching supplements: By brand or by the active ingredient.
For example, if you want to know:
- Whether the health claims about a product are true
- What the active (and inactive) ingredients in a product are
- If the product is known to be high-quality from third-party testing
- Have there been any recalls or warnings issued for the product, brand, or company
- If a specific brand or product is available in Canada
Then, Part 1 of this article, Researching branded supplements, is for you!
On the other hand, if you want to know more about the supplement’s active ingredients, like:
- What conditions are helped (or worsened) by which active ingredients
- How certain ingredients work in the body
- What common side effects are experienced with these ingredients
Then, Part 2 of this article, Researching active ingredients, is for you!
Before you dive in, if you need some tips on researching health topics efficiently, here’s your guide.
Part 1 – Researching branded supplements
Step 1: Is the product available in Canada? What are the details of the licensed product?*
A simple search in Health Canada’s Licensed Natural Health Products Database can answer that quickly. You can search by brand name, license holder (the manufacturer/importer), or other criteria.
When you find the branded product you’re looking for, click on its 8-digit NPN (Natural Product Number) to find the:
- Brand name and the license holder (which company is responsible for this product in Canada)
- Dosage form (e.g., caplet) and route of administration (e.g., oral)
- Recommended dose (i.e., how much to take)
- Recommended Use/Purpose—these are the health claims they can make (this can be expanded if they’ve done high-quality studies)
When supplement companies want better claims, they are more than welcome to conduct their own clinical trials to prove their product has another health benefit. In fact, just follow these instructions to make it happen. Here’s what Health Canada says:
“Did you know that you can submit evidence to Health Canada that is not outlined in this document? If you have an alternative way of supporting the safety and efficacy of your product, we’ll look at that information.”
Step 2: Is the product known to be high-quality? Have there been recalls or warnings for that product, brand, or company?
We’ve all heard horror stories of products found to contain no active ingredients, wrong amounts of active ingredients, substituting different active ingredients, being high in heavy metals, laced with prescription drugs, or other things that aren’t declared on the label.
Here are a few places where you can verify the quality of the product you’re looking at:
USP stands for United States Pharmacopeia and they have been around for over 200 years helping to create global standards for medications. They also test supplements and publish their findings on their website where you can search them by brand, type, and retailer.
Certified for Sport
If the quality of sports supplements is important to you, there is an NSF Certified for Sport product search. They test for active ingredient levels and contaminants, including 270+ substances banned by major athletic organizations. According to them
NSF International’s Certified for Sport® helps athletes make safer decisions when choosing sports supplements. MLB, NHL and CFL clubs are permitted to provide and recommend only products that are Certified for Sport®. Certified for Sport® is also recommended by the NFL, PGA, LPGA, CCES, CPSDA, Taylor Hooton Foundation and many other sports organizations.
There is another independent lab testing company that tests products they get off their US shelves and from online stores. Their name is Labdoor and they independently test and rank hundreds of supplements in dozens of categories. They test for things like label accuracy (is what’s in the bottle what’s on the label in terms of the amount of active ingredient) and product purity (Are there heavy metals in the product?).
ConsumerLab does testing and rating of many supplements. You can see their list of brands tested here.
Find if products have been recalled or if there are any safety alerts:
- *In Canada, you can search the Recalls and Safety Alerts database for health products, foods, consumer products, and vehicles. And, yep, there’s an app for that!
- In the US you can search FDA’s Recalls, Market Withdrawals and Safety Alerts database for foods and health products.
NOTE: There are differences between an advisory, alert, withdrawal, and recall—they’re not the same, and none of them are a “ban.” Here’s an example of something that was on the market and has been banned: industrial trans fats from partially hydrogenated oils.
Plus, if you have a safety concern with a product on the market, you can report it for yourself:
Step 3: Have any peer-reviewed studies been published on the product?
Hit PubMed and search for the company’s trademarked brand or product name. See if anything shows up. The higher quality studies will be either Review studies or Randomized Clinical Trials (RCTs).
Of course, you can also search PubMed to find if there were any good studies published about the active ingredient.
For a list of dozens of credible sites to find health information, plus some PubMed tips, download your free guide here:
Part 2 – Researching active ingredients
We’re not talking about specific products, brands, or companies anymore – we’re talking about ingredients.
If you want to know what the research says for health effects of hundreds of different supplement ingredients my first stop is Examine.com. They’re independent, unbiased supplement and nutrition experts. They’re never associated with any products or companies.
You can search their site for free for information on proven health benefits (and risks) of different supplement ingredients. Just type in the ingredient name, and you can read all about it. I especially love their supplement information (see a free sample here). Here is my Examine affiliate link if you’re considering investing in access to their entire database of science-based health and supplement information.
Another place to research supplement active ingredients is the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements (NIH ODS). This is a massive US-based research hub that has a tonne of factsheets on a wide variety of supplements.
Signing off and toasting: To savvy investigation skills when it comes to supplement claims!
Over to you
Are you curious if some supplement health claims are BS? What about the quality of the product?
Do you have another great resource to use for researching supplements that I missed? Post the link in the comments below!
Want a fairly constant flow of credible health information (and content marketing strategy)? Follow me on Twitter.
Originally published Nov 2018; updated with even more awesomeness in Sep 2022.
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I’m Leesa Klich, MSc., R.H.N.
Health writer – Blogging expert – Research nerd.
I help health and wellness professionals build their authority with scientific health content. They want to stand out in the crowded, often unqualified, market of entrepreneurs. I help them establish trust with their audiences, add credibility to their services, and save them a ton of time so they don’t have to do the research or writing themselves. To work with me, click here.