How to research supplements – Canada edition
I was at a huge health products trade show in Toronto a few months ago.
Picture descending down an escalator into Canada’s largest convention facility filled with bright lights, hundreds of booths, and thousands of people – all of whom put a high value on health and wellness. In order to attend, you had to prove you’re in the wellness industry (this wasn’t open to the public). I mean many (most) were there for profit – to get their new products picked up by retailers/distributors, to connect with bloggers (me!), and to network with people in the industry for possible future collaborations.
It was a trade show!
I have to admit, I came away with tonnes of samples of new “healthy” foods and products, got to hang out with a few of my nutritionist friends, and chatted with dozens more people. In those conversations I was offered an audience for a webinar I hadn’t created yet, LinkedIn connections, and a potential future writing opportunity with a Canadian supplement company.
But a few things I heard from the salespeople at the booths kinda bugged me. They overstretched/twisted the truth to make their product seem better than it actually is.At this trade show, some health product salespeople overstretched the truth to make their product seem better than it actually is. #TruthInAdvertising #Health #Supplements Click To Tweet
I get it – they’re doing sales and marketing – that’s their job.
When it comes to people’s health, I have much less patience for BS.
For example, one guy was talking about his supplement line and rhymed off a bunch of health claims that his supps have special benefits for athletes. When I took a bottle and read the label (it was a licensed supplement) it just said that it was for the maintenance of good health.
Hmmmm – not so impressive.
At one essential oil booth the lady was rhyming off some of their (clearly unapproved) health claims from the top of her head. When I asked her if these health claims are on the label she said that they’re not because Health Canada doesn’t approve health claims for natural products.
This post will help you become a savvy health supplement bullshit detector!
If you’re curious to know 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 bunk – this is for you.
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. The information is still available online outside of Canada, but they may not be wholly relevant to non-Canadians.
Before we begin: Are you curious about branded supplements or active ingredients?
There really are two different angles to researching supplements: By brand or by active ingredient.
For example, if you want to know:
- If a specific product is available in Canada,
- What products are available from a certain company or under a brand name,
- Whether the health claims about a branded product are true (hence my trade show stories),
- What the active (and inactive) ingredients in that product are,
- If the product is known to be high-quality or not,
- Have there been any recalls or warnings issued for the product, brand, or company?
Then, Part 1 of this article, Researching branded supplements, is for you!
On the other hand, if you want to know:
- What conditions are helped (or worsened) by which supplement ingredients,
- How certain supplement ingredients work in the body,
- What common side effects are experienced with this ingredient?
Then, Part 2 of this article, Researching active ingredients, is for you!
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 NPN and you’ll see pretty much everything that they’re approved/allowed to say:
- NPN (8-digit Natural Product Number),
- Brand name and the license holder,
- Dosage form (e.g. caplet, etc.) and route of administration (e.g. oral, etc.),
- Recommended dose (i.e. how much to take),
- Recommended Use/Purpose – the health claims they are allowed to make (NOTE: When supplement companies want better claims, they are more than welcome to conduct their own high-quality clinical trials to prove their product has another use/purpose – Don’t be fooled by people who claim that, ‘it’s natural, so we’re not allowed to say the real benefits’.) If you want a special health claim on your product, called a “non-traditional” or “modern” health claim, just follow these instructions and you can make it happen. Here’s what they say:
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.
- Risk information (Cautions and Warnings),
- List of medicinal (active) ingredients and the amounts,
- List of non-medicinal ingredients,
- When the product was licensed.
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, or laced with prescription drugs, or other things that aren’t declared on the label.
One service available to the global food and supplement industry is third-party testing of their ingredients and products to earn the TRU-ID certification. This company, through my alma mater the University of Guelph, offers testing to prove that what’s on the label is actually in the products. If you see the TRU-ID certification on the label, this is another mark of trustworthiness.
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 quality of sports supplements is important to you, there is an NSF Certified for Sport product search. They test for a active ingredient levels and contaminants, including 270+ substances banned by major athletic organization. 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, south of the border, that tests for these things in 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 amount of active ingredient) and product purity (are there heavy metals in the product?).
Yes, these are US products, but many of them are licensed (or otherwise) available in Canada. And even if not, the Labdoor rank for products from a certain company/brand reflect on the entire company/brand.
ConsumerLabs does testing and rating of many supplements. You can see their list of brands tested here.
When it comes to finding supplement recalls and warnings, both Canada and the US have you covered:
Canada’s searchable safety database
USA’s searchable safety database
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.
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. Here’s how to search for and understand a clinical study in PubMed.
Part 2 – Researching active ingredients
We’re not talking about specific products, brands, or companies any more – 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 product, nor company. And they turn hundreds of nerdy PubMed studies into easy-to-read searchable information for people like us.
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 “Human Effect Matrix” that tabulates:
- Level of evidence (i.e. Are we talking one study or dozens?),
- Outcome (i.e. Health goal),
- The magnitude of the effect (i.e. does the effect of the supplement ingredient make a big difference or a teeny tiny one?),
- Consistency of research results (i.e. do all the studies point the same direction, or are they all over the place?) with links to the studies,
This is all absolutely free on their website!
If, on the other hand, you have a health goal or outcome in mind and want to look up which supplement ingredients help with it, you can buy their A-Z Supplement Reference (which I have and love!) – Here is my Examine affiliate link to check it out. It’s their “cheat sheet to better health.”
Examine also has a monthly research digest that I subscribe to to stay up-to-date on the latest science-based health and nutrition info.
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 better BS detection when it comes to supplement claims!
Over to you
Are you curious if some of the supplement health claims are BS? What about the quality of their products?
Do you have another great resource to use for researching supplements? Post the link in the comments below!
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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.