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You probably take vitamins and supplements with the goal of improving your health. That’s great news! Yet these products aren't always good for you -- or safe. And buying dietary supplements isn't as straightforward as looking for the most promising health claim on a label.

Fortunately, you can arm yourself with some simple facts before you start taking supplements. Use this checklist as a guide to help you talk with your doctor. Bring it to the drug store or supermarket to help you choose a supplement that's safe, and that best fits your health needs.

Supplements and the FDA

Because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate supplements like it does prescription medicines, what's inside the supplement bottle may not always match what the label promises. Even a supplement called "all-natural" can cause side effects or interact with medicines you're already taking. Some supplements may include ingredients that aren't even listed on the label.

Before you buy any supplement, talk to your doctor. Find out if the product you're thinking of purchasing is safe for you. Ask whether it might interact with any other medications you're taking.

Read the Supplement Label

When buying any dietary supplement, here’s what to look for:

  • Has the supplement been certified by an organization that verifies supplement safety? Look for a blue and yellow seal from the United States Pharmacopeia (USP), or a symbol from NSF International or Consumer Lab.com.
  • Check that the label contains: The name of the supplement, the name and address and phone number of the manufacturer, a complete list of ingredients--including the active ingredient, and the serving size.
  • How much of each nutrient is in the supplement? You don't want to exceed the tolerable upper intake level (UL) for any one nutrient.
  • Does the claim on the label or in the product's commercial sound too good to be true? If the promise sounds unreasonable, it probably is. Only certain claims can be made on food and dietary supplement labels. These claims fall into 3 categories: health claims, nutrient content claims, and structure and function claims.
  • Has the supplement been recalled? You can check for recalls on the FDA's web site at www.fda.gov/drugs/drugsafety/DrugRecalls/default.htm.

If you don't understand the information on the supplement label, ask the pharmacist at the store for help. If your pharmacist can’t address your questions, you may call the supplement manufacturer. Here are a few questions to ask:

  • Is there medical research to back up the product's benefits and safety?
  • Where was this product made? Be careful about any supplement produced outside the United States, because safety standards may not be the same.
  • Have there been any adverse effects reported with this product?
  • Has this product been recalled?

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