Q&A: How to spot a quality supplement
In our first event for nutritional professionals, we discussed what makes a high-quality supplement.
At Heights, we care about the science. It’s what drives us, and without understanding it, we can’t put your brain first. We want to build a community among dietitians and nutritionists to cultivate discussion and research in the field, and raise the bar when it comes to the quality of supplements.
In our first Heights for Pros event, co-founder Joel Freeman and Head of Nutritional Research, Sophie Medlin, talk about the ways of identifying quality and integrity in nutritional supplements. As the industry has traditionally been opaque, it’s not always easy for people to know exactly what is in a supplement, or whether they should choose it. We want to change that.
Here are some of the key questions that Joel put to Sophie.
What are the legal regulations?
Joel: Sophie, you must come across a lot of different nutritional supplements, and they do have a bit of a reputation for making big claims. What actually are the legal regulations on the supplement industry?
Sophie: There are surprisingly few legal regulations on nutritional supplements. While the specifics vary slightly between different countries, the majority cover marketing, and what you can claim, rather than what you can actually put in the supplement itself.
There’s also no requirement to have any medical input to the design of the supplement. You can simply contact a manufacturer with an idea, get them to make it, then sell it on. And there’s no need to test anything for safety before it goes to market—it’s only necessary if there’s a complaint.
When put together, that all sounds slightly worrying, but it doesn’t have to be. It just means that it’s extra important to do some research into any supplement yourself, and to not take a brand at face value.
What to look for in a supplement
Joel: So when a nutrition professional is looking for a good supplement, what are they keeping an eye out for?
Sophie: To ensure a supplement has both quality and integrity, there are five main things to consider:
Quality of active ingredients
Quantity of inactive ingredients
The team behind the supplement
Each of these can be used to gain an insight into the process behind the supplement, and therefore whether it’s something you should be choosing. If you can tick off each criterion, then you can be pretty confident that you’ve come across a good supplement.
High-quality ingredients, high-quality supplement
Joel: And how can you tell that the ingredients are high quality?
Sophie: If you walk into a pharmacist and pick up a supplement from the shelf, chances are only about 6% of the price goes towards ingredients. Retail margins, VAT and overheads kick in very quickly, and ingredients are an obvious place to cut costs.
The main aspect of ingredient quality is the compound used. Chemical compounds are not made equal, and higher-quality compounds are likely to cost more. In return though, you get greater bioavailability, along with a more sustainable production process. We think that’s a good trade.
The other thing to look out for is the inactive ingredients, or everything in the supplement that isn’t a nutrient. These typically take the form of fillers, binders, and caking agents, and you generally want to minimise the quantity (unless you like the idea of eating more talcum powder than is absolutely necessary).
Certain forms of supplements are particularly high in inactive ingredients. For example, a gummy can only contain 10% active ingredients—the other 90% is needed to make the sweet itself.
The science behind it all
Joel: When faced with a new supplement, how do you know if the science behind the brand is up to date?
Sophie: The great thing about science is that it adapts. What was considered best practice 30 years ago won’t necessarily still be the fashion today. Unfortunately, NRVs (nutrient reference values) were developed in 1991, and haven’t been updated since. Think about the phone you’re reading this on, now imagine what mobiles looked like then.
Our lifestyles have moved on, as have the standards of research (so the studies were more likely to have contained design flaws, bias, and less diversity). One alternative to relying on NRVs is looking at the safe upper limit (SUL). More recent research suggests that impactful quantities are actually closer to these figures, rather than the traditional NRVs.
The list of safe inactive ingredients also changes over time, so it’s essential to stay on top of that. For example, titanium dioxide (used to whiten both supplement pills and oil paint) is often on the ingredients list, but it was recently found to not be safe for consumption.
Joel: Anything else should you do when researching a supplement?
Sophie: Well, yes, plenty. First, take a look at the people behind the supplement. Ask yourself about their credentials and expertise, and what their motivations are. As selling direct to consumers through platforms like Instagram becomes easier, the temptation to make a quick buck through a sketchy supplement grows.
You should also keep an eye out for validation from external sources. This can take several forms, from any relevant scientific studies to third-party stability tests, and even customer reviews. After all, you can put together the highest-quality, most ethical production process imaginable, but until the supplement is released to the public, there’s no way of knowing if the customer is happy with the outcome. And that’s one of the most important tests of all.
The Heights story
When we developed the Heights Smart Supplement, we followed this basic framework. We wanted to get top marks in each category. We aren’t there yet, especially as we await the final results of our own nutritional study, but the response from customers seems to suggest that we’re doing something right.