Good Housekeeping’s Dietary Supplements Methodology
At Good Housekeeping, we are dedicated to providing our readers with evidence-based recommendations to support a healthy lifestyle. While our nutritionists in the Good Housekeeping Institute are advocates of a food-first mentality — that is, that you should strive to get all the nutrients you need through a healthy diet — there are times when a dietary supplement may be recommended by your healthcare provider.
Take note: Our nutrition pros stress that a supplement should do just that: supplement the diet, not replace high-quality, nutritious food and important healthy lifestyle practices. Check with your healthcare provider before starting any dietary supplement regimen.
Here is everything you need to know about how we carefully select, evaluate and choose to recommend specific dietary supplements.
What are dietary supplements?
The legal definition of a dietary supplement is a product containing one or more dietary ingredient or constituent meant for you to take by mouth as a pill, capsule, tablet or liquid — in addition to the food you eat. It also must be labeled as a dietary supplement on the front panel. Dietary supplements can include vitamins and minerals; herbs and botanicals; amino acids, enzymes and many other ingredients.
Popular supplements in the U.S. include multivitamins, vitamins D and B12 and products like probiotics. And while certain combinations of ingredients might be marketed as potentially helpful to specific concerns, manufacturers are not permitted to claim that a dietary supplement treats, diagnoses, mitigates, prevents or cures disease.
How are dietary supplements regulated?
Technically, dietary supplements are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as foods. But the regulations for supplements are different from those for food products, as well as from drugs. Drug manufacturers must obtain FDA approval by providing evidence for the drug’s safety and effectiveness, but makers of dietary supplements do not have to.
Only products with new dietary ingredients, ones that were not sold before October 15, 1994, need to notify the FDA and provide specific information on evidence of safety for human use. New products containing ingredients that were sold before that date do not.
To add to the uncertainty around purchasing a dietary supplement, supplements are also not required to be standardized by the United States. In 2007, the FDA did issue the Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) for dietary supplements – these are requirements for how dietary supplements should be manufactured, prepared and stored to ensure quality. The GMPs were created to prevent issues such as wrong ingredients winding up in dietary supplements, too much or too little of one ingredient in the product, as well as the possibility of contamination and improper labeling and packaging of dietary supplements.
The FDA periodically inspects facilities that manufacture dietary supplements. Still, this ultimately, means that it is almost entirely up to the supplement brands themselves to ensure that what is on the label is actually present in the product — and some brands take this more seriously this than others.
Many supplement manufacturers choose to voluntarily undergo third-party testing of their products to provide assurance to both the brand and the customer that what is on the label is actually present in the bottle. This means that the manufacturer will pay an independent, outside company to test the products for purity, potency, quality and safety. This can include testing for contaminants such as heavy metals and bacteria as well. Dietary supplements that have gone through third-party testing will typically include the certification emblem on their packaging. Reputable third-party testing organizations include U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) and NSF International.
In short, the inconsistency of safety and efficacy standards in the industry explains why it’s incredibly important to thoroughly research each supplement you add to your regimen and speak with your doctor before taking it.
How do I know if I need a dietary supplement?
Dietary supplements include everything from vitamins and minerals to herbs, botanicals, probiotics and more, and many of these do not have science-backed guidelines dictating how much, if any, a person may benefit from.
There are established recommended amounts for vitamins and minerals, so your healthcare provider may recommend supplementation to help ensure you are getting adequate amounts of these essential nutrients. If you’re not sure how much of a certain vitamin or mineral you need, this free tool from the USDA can provide a list of your daily needs (ideally obtained through food but possibly through supplements as well) based on several factors including your age, height and weight.
But don’t start simply taking a supplement on your own: Certain dietary supplements may have undesirable side effects or interactions with other supplements and medications, so it is always imperative that you consult your healthcare provider before adding anything new to your current regimen.
Side effects are most likely to happen if you take dietary supplements at high doses or in place of of prescribed medications, or if you take too many different supplements. Here are a few things to take care of before starting a dietary supplement:
- Consult your healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplements.
- Check with your healthcare provider to ensure that the dietary supplement you plan to take will not interfere with your current medications, supplements or medical conditions.
- Discuss with your healthcare provider the potential benefits of the supplement as well as any safety risks.
- Have your healthcare provider determine the proper dose for your needs, as well as how, when and how long you should take the supplement.
Our dietary supplements evaluation process
Our registered dietitians in the Good Housekeeping Institute Nutrition Lab rigorously evaluate supplements based on nutritional expertise, ingredients and third-party testing data.
Prior to evaluating the actual products, we review whatever independent research has been conducted on the ingredients for their safety and effectiveness to ensure that the supplement ingredient or ingredients in fact have evidence behind them. We then seek out highly rated options from reputable companies with strict quality control standards.
When evaluating the products, we consider everything from the type, form, source, physical size, smell, serving size, servings per container, ingredient lists, product quality and other factors. Certain supplements, such as protein powders, are combined with liquid according to package instructions so we might assess how easily the product mixes and tastes.
Most importantly, we prioritize recommendations that have been tested for purity, potency and safety by a credible third-party organization such as USP or NSF, to ensure quality standards and that what is on the product label is in fact what you’ll be consuming. Our team evaluates Certificates of Analysis as well as third-party testing reports for dietary supplements, and will also have supplements of concern tested for heavy metals and contaminants if this information is not readily available to the consumer. We also review marketing claims and look for products with sustainable sourcing methods.
Meet our health and nutrition team
Stefani (she/her) is a registered dietitian, a NASM-certified personal trainer and the director of the Good Housekeeping Institute Nutrition Lab, where she handles all nutrition-related content, testing and evaluation. She holds a bachelor’s degree in nutritional sciences from Pennsylvania State University and a master’s degree in clinical nutrition from NYU. She is also Good Housekeeping’s on-staff fitness and exercise expert. Stefani is dedicated to providing readers with evidence-based content to encourage informed food choices and healthy living. She is an avid CrossFitter and a passionate home cook who loves spending time with her big fit Greek family.
Stephanie (she/her) is the director of the Hearst Health Newsroom, where she writes, edits and oversees all health content for Good Housekeeping, Prevention and other Hearst titles. She has covered women’s physical and emotional health, nutrition, sexuality and the multitudes of topics they contain for national publications for decades, and she is also a bestselling author, a mom of twins, a dog mom and an intuitive eater in progress.