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Are You Taking an Effective, High Quality Supplement?

By Tom Nikkola, CSCS, CISSN, Pn1

Each year, it seems a new media story is published that casts considerable doubt on the quality and efficacy of nutritional supplements. For many of the brands scrutinized in these stories, the negative attention is well-deserved.

Regrettably for the consumer, however, these stories often cast considerable doubt on the entire supplement industry, leaving individuals without any guidance to select products that are, in fact, of good quality.

Certainly, there are supplement companies that maintain unscrupulous business and manufacturing practices, which bring these issues to light.

And, these organizations serve to powerfully reinforce the tremendous quality of the products found at Life Time – The Healthy Way of Life Company.

With a line of Life Time branded products, along with a few other highly selected products, we have committed to offer only the highest quality, most efficacious, and purest nutritional products through our clubs and online store.

In the spirit of helping consumers discern low from high quality products, we offer the following information and tips aim to demystify the nutritional supplement industry and its regulations.

FDA Regulation of the Supplement Industry

All too often, media stories make the statement, “The supplement industry is not regulated.” Yet, this simply isn’t true. As stated on the FDA’s website:

FDA regulates both finished dietary supplement products and dietary ingredients. FDA regulates dietary supplements under a different set of regulations than those covering “conventional” foods and drug products. Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA):

  • Manufacturers and distributors of dietary supplements and dietary ingredients are prohibited from marketing products that are adulterated or misbranded. That means that these firms are responsible for evaluating the safety and labeling of their products before marketing to ensure that they meet all the requirements of DSHEA and FDA regulations.
  • FDA is responsible for taking action against any adulterated or misbranded dietary supplement product after it reaches the market.

So, does it remain possible for a company to release a product that doesn’t contain what the label says it does? Regrettably, yes. Similarly, is it also possible for food brands to contain ingredients the label doesn’t disclose? Again, yes. Need we be reminded of those stories about horse meat being found in foods that were supposed to be 100% beef?

Of course, this doesn’t make the issues with supplements or food any less acceptable. It’s simply important to acknowledge that we sometimes are led to believe that the supplement industry is the only place where gaps in quality control like this exist. That’s just not the case.

Even worse are those situations when crooked companies knowingly produce nutritional products laced with drugs (which generally is the real reason that specific supplement may have any effect in the first place).

In response, the FDA has compiled quite a list of products laced with drugs and sold as ‘weight loss,’ ‘body building’ and/or ‘libido’ supporting supplements. These aren’t products developed by reputable brands. Rather, they are often fly-by-night companies shilling their products wherever they can. Just as you wouldn’t expect the best quality meat and produce to be found at your local gas station, you can’t expect to find quality supplements there either.

Unfortunately, these are the stories that make the headlines. However, their occurrence is quite infrequent and insignificant relative to the sheer number of supplement brands on the market.

Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMPs) & Product Testing

While thousands of supplement manufacturers exist worldwide, only a small number meet high the standards we require at Life Time. In fact, many don’t even meet the FDA’s Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMPs), which outline the requirements for:

  • design and construction of physical plants that produce nutritional supplements
  • building, manufacturing room and equipment cleaning
  • proper manufacturing operations
  • quality control procedures
  • testing final product or incoming and in-process materials
  • handling consumer complaints
  • maintaining records

It’s a sad reality that there are more “shady” supplement manufacturers and suppliers than quality companies. At Life Time, however, we have selected among only the most respected manufacturing partners to create products worthy of our brand.

Our carefully selected manufacturing partners, like Thorne Research, assist us in creating and modifying our product formulations, while also ensuring the efficacy of our products and that all of our expected quality controls are in place.

In the latest round of media coverage surrounding supplements, the New York attorney general’s office accused four major retailers of selling fraudulent and potentially dangerous herbal supplements, demanding that they remove the products from their shelves. The authorities said they had conducted tests on top-selling store brands of herbal supplements and found that four out of five of the products did not contain any of the herbs on their labels. The tests showed that pills labeled medicinal herbs often contained little more than cheap fillers like powdered rice, asparagus and houseplants, and in some cases, substances that could be dangerous to those with allergies.

In response, Thorne Research offered:

In order to assure consistency and the integrity of our products, we have developed and implement detailed and documented specifications for all raw materials, production components (such as bottles and lids), labels, and finished products. We source raw materials and components only from the best suppliers who are certified by us to meet our requirements and consistently provide materials that comply with our stringent specifications.

Thorne Research’s standards for testing raw materials and finished products meet or exceed the standards set by both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Australian Government’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (Australia’s FDA), thus providing worldwide governmental acceptance of our products. Every raw material and finished product is tested for microbiological contaminants, heavy metals, and other reasonably expected environmental contaminants.

Click here to read their full statement.

Thorne’s stringent quality controls also ensure that, in the rare chance something goes awry, they will have all the necessary records to determine the cause.

Given the well-regarded brand we have built at Life Time, we expect this same type of quality assurance from any manufacturer we work with, as well as the select third-party brands we offer.

Quality Nutrients

Nutrient forms can vary dramatically from one like product to another. The nutrient form not only determines the price of a product, but also influences whether that nutrient will be absorbed or not.

We don’t make cheap products that result in expensive urine. We make higher-end products designed to deliver results.

For example, vitamin B12, magnesium, iron and other micronutrients are available in many different forms. The form often determines the price, but also how effectively that nutrient is absorbed. After all, if you don’t absorb what you’re taking, you throw away a lot more money than when you spend more for something that actually works.

When reviewing a product, look at a few nutrients to judge its quality. Following are three quick ways to determine if a product is of reasonable quality simply by reviewing the label.

Cyancobalamin vs Methylcobalamin

Cyancobalamin and methylcobalamin are both forms of vitamin B12. Methylcobalamin is the natural, active form. Cyancobalamin is not.

Cyancobalamin is cheap. And, that is why low-quality supplement manufacturers use it. Cyancobalamin is poorly absorbed and, in order to metabolize this nutrient, it must be broken down to cobalamin and cyanide. Though the amount of cyanide is small, it has to be detoxified by the liver with the use of glutathione, the body’s primary antioxidant.[i]

Methylcobalamin is much more readily absorbed and does not contain a cyanide molecule or put unnecessary work on the body’s detoxification process. And, just as you pay for what you get, it costs considerably more. But, if you’re paying for vitamin B12 and its benefits, we presume you also want it to actually do its job.

Folic Acid vs. Natural Folate

Folic acid and folate are not the same. Folic acid is a synthetic nutrient that was created in 1943, and became a required part of fortified foods in the U.S. in 1988.[ii] Though folic acid and folate sound similar, they are metabolized quite differently.

Fortunately, the natural folate is metabolized to tetrahydrofolate in the intestines, whereas folic acid has to be metabolized by the liver – something it is not very efficient at doing. As a result, a large amount of folic acid may end up in the blood, unmetabolized.[iii]

This high level of unmetabolized folic acid may be why higher intakes of folic acid are associated with an increased risk of developing cancer.[iv] There is also evidence to suggest that folic acid fortification or supplementation could mask deficiencies in vitamin B12.[v]

The natural form of folate is available in supplemental form. You can find it listed as 5-methyletrahydrofolate on the label. This form is much better absorbed and does not carry the same risks associated with folic acid supplementation. As noted previously, it costs more, so you won’t find this in low-priced nutritional products. Even some higher-end supplements don’t always use the natural form of folate, so it’s best to check the label.

Mineral Forms

Like the vitamins above and many others not mentioned, minerals are found in different forms. At the low end of the quality scale, you’ll find calcium carbonate, magnesium oxide and other similar mineral forms. At the other end, you’ll find the best forms, which are mineral bisglycinates. Citrates and citrate-malate are in the middle.

The choice of which to use comes down to cost and space available. Bisglycinates take up a lot of room, but are the best absorbed. They also cost the most.

“Stuff” That Shouldn’t Be In Supplements

Obviously, people take supplements to improve their health. So it would be best to avoid controversial, inactive ingredients.

Capsules vs. Tablets

Tablets usually contain filler and binders to hold the tablet together. These fillers and binders, at best, unnecessary, and at worst, ingredients that may impede the breakdown and absorption of the supplement.

With rare exception, we opt for capsule-based pills in the Life Time branded products as well as products we select from other brands.

Artificial Ingredients

At Life Time clubs, our LifeCafe locations and our online store, we don’t allow any products with artificial sweeteners. Hopefully, you don’t allow them in your home either.

Most people know aspartame and sucralose as common artificial sweeteners. Another commonly used artificial sweetener is acesulfame-potassium, or “ace-K.” If you find a product containing one of these ingredients, walk away from it.

As you might expect, artificial colors and flavors also are a no-no at Life Time. We simply won’t give into the idea of using artificial flavors, colors or sweeteners.


Carrageenan is used as a thickener. It is often found in protein powders to enhance the texture. Carrageenan comes from red seaweed and exists in three forms.

Degraded carrageenan is used to cause inflammation in research animals when testing anti-inflammatory therapies. Some research indicates the undegraded carrageenan, used in food for humans (and in supplements) may become degraded in the digestive process and could lead to inflammation in the digestive system.[vi],[vii]

Animal and human cell studies also suggests carrageenan could contribute to glucose intolerance and insulin resistance.[viii]

Summing It All Up

With a little knowledge of what to look for on the supplement’s label, you can readily identify when a product’s quality is inferior.

You can take comfort in the fact that Life Time has upheld an unwavering commitment to offer nothing short of the best quality products available. This applies to the products carrying the Life Time brand and the carefully selected third-party products we offer in our clubs and online store.

To us, quality means the label matches the contents of the bottle, using the most effective forms of nutrients, sourced them from the most reputable suppliers. Does it cost more? Yes. Is it worth it? Undeniably.

We invite you to learn more about Life Time’s nutritional products by having one of our fitness professionals contact you.

[i] Kelly G. The Coenzyme Forms of Vitamin B12: Toward an Understanding of their Therapeutic Potential. Alt Med Rev. 1997;2(6):459-471

[ii] Solomons NW. Food fortification with folic acid: has the other shoe dropped? Nutr Rev. 2007;65(11):512-5

[iii] Powers HJ. Folic acid under scrutiny. Brit J Nutr. 2007;98:665-666

[iv] Hirsch S, Sanchez H, Albala C., et al. Colon cancer in Chile before and after the start of the flour fortification program with folic acid.

[v] Pietrzik K, Bailey L, Shane B. Folic acid and L-5-methyltetrahydrofolate: comparison of clinical pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics. Clin Pharmacokinet. 2010;49(8)535-48

[vi] Tobacman JK. Review of harmful gastrointestinal effects of carageenan in animal experiment. Environ Health Perspect. 2001;109:983-994

[vii] Borthakur A, Bhattacharyya S, Dudeja PK, Tobacman JK. Carageenan induces interleukin-8 production through distinct Bc110 pathway in human colonic epithelial cells. Am J Physiol Gastrointest Liver Physiol. 2007;292:G829-G838

[viii] Bhattacharyya S, Borthakur A, Dudeja PK, Tobacman JK. Carrageenan Induces Cell Cycle Arrest in Human Intestinal Epithelial Cells in Vitro. J Nutr. 2008;138:469-475

The posts on this blog are not intended to suggest or recommend the diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of any disease, nor to substitute for medical treatment, nor to be an alternative to medical advice. The use of the suggestions and recommendations on this blog post is at the choice and risk of the reader.
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