6 Things to Look for When Buying Dietary Supplements

A Dietitian Explains

Looking for dietary supplements

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Dietary supplements fill entire aisles at local pharmacies, supermarkets, and big box stores. The shelves are packed with bottles of individual vitamins and minerals, vitamin and mineral combinations, herbal supplements, probiotics, fish oil, and enzymes; the list is endless.

This may have you wondering: What should you add to your cart and what should you leave on the shelf? That’s a good question and one everyone looking at adding dietary supplements to their daily routine should ask themselves. It’s hard to differentiate between what you need and what you don’t when there are so many mixed messages about nutrition, nutrients, and supplements.

Following a few general rules when selecting dietary supplements can help. Here are the six things to look for when buying dietary supplements.

Independent Third-Party Tested and Certified

Dietary supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA like medications. The FDA plays absolutely no role in determining whether a dietary supplement is safe or effective before it hits the shelves. It’s up to the manufacturer of the product to make sure their supplements are safe and effective. 

How do you know if your dietary supplement is okay to take? You can look for independent third-party testing seals on the label. There are a few independent organizations that do quality testing for dietary supplements, including:

  • ConsumerLab.com
  • NSF International
  • U.S. Pharmacopeia

These organizations test dietary supplements to make sure they’re made properly, contain the ingredients listed on the label, and have no harmful elements. Buying a dietary supplement with a third-party testing seal, however, doesn’t necessarily mean the supplement is safe or effective for you. 

Always speak with a healthcare provider before adding a dietary supplement to your routine. Supplements contain active ingredients that affect your body and may interact with medication.


When looking for a dietary supplement, aim to select products that contain non-GMO and organic ingredients. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are plants and animals that contain altered DNA that wouldn’t naturally occur by mating or genetic recombination.

Though research is ongoing, there are questions about how GMOs may affect human health or the environment. It’s been suggested that GMOs may trigger allergic reactions in humans or alter the genetic profile of plants or organisms in an ecosystem. Sticking with dietary supplements made with non-GMO ingredients may prevent unexpected side effects.

The USDA says organic products can’t contain GMOs. So, buying supplements labeled as organic and non-GMO ensures you’re getting a product that contains ingredients that are as natural as possible.


Like food manufacturers, dietary supplement makers are required to clearly identify any of the following major food allergens on their labels: wheat, dairy, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, shellfish, and fish.

If you have food allergies, you want to make sure your dietary supplement doesn’t contain your allergen. You should also read the ingredients list and talk to a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian if you have concerns about the ingredients in a food or supplement.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAI), says people with allergies and asthma need to pay extra attention to the label on dietary supplements. AAAI also reminds people that "natural" doesn’t mean safe. They warn that herbal remedies like chamomile tea and echinacea may trigger an allergic reaction in people with seasonal allergies.

Free of Unnecessary Additives

Thousands of years ago humans added salt to meat to keep it from spoiling, making salt one of the first food additives. However, salt is no longer the only additive used to prolong the shelf-life of food and supplements. There are more than 10,000 additives approved for use today.

Though helpful for shelf-life, researchers are finding that these additives aren’t so good for health, especially in children. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says the chemicals in food and supplements may affect hormones, growth, and development.

Dietary supplements may contain additives to modify color or improve taste. When buying supplements watch out for artificial coloring and flavorings. If you have a question about an ingredient, ask a healthcare professional. Labels can be confusing and they can help you dissect information and figure out what 's right for you. An individualized approach is always ideal because when taking vitamins one must consider dosages, ingredients, budget, vitamin form, and more.

Look for supplements with natural preservatives like vitamins C and E.

Minimally Sweetened

Taste is a major turnoff for many individuals when it comes to dietary supplements. It’s hard to swallow something that tastes like metal or smells fishy. It's good news that supplement manufacturers now make all types of dietary supplements sweet and chewy. 

Unfortunately, many of these candy-like supplements contain a long list of ingredients, including many types of sugar and low-calorie sweeteners, like artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols. If this is the only way that you—or your family—can tolerate supplements, then it's better than nothing. However, it's best to educate yourself on what to look for.

To get the benefits without excessive sugar, look for dietary supplements that are minimally sweetened. You may want to avoid supplements that contain artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohol. Though sugar substitutes come with fewer calories, they may not be good for your body long-term. There’s some evidence that non-nutritive sweeteners may contribute to the development of chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

In some instances, the amount of sugar may be minimal, so take a look at the serving size and type of vitamin. People with diabetes may need to be sensitive to their sugar intake, however, for many people a few extra grams of sugar (ideally less than 4 grams) may be a reasonable tradeoff.

Short List of Ingredients (when possible)

A dietary supplement label must include a list of active and inactive ingredients. Active ingredients are the ones that affect your body whereas inactive ingredients are the additives and fillers. Though the ingredient list on a dietary supplement varies depending on the type of supplement you take, read the labels and select supplements with a shorter list of ingredients. 

A shorter list doesn't always mean "better." It's also important to note what is in the product. For example, some multivitamins and enriched protein powders contain a laundry list of ingredients, due to the nature of the product. Consider why, and how, you're using a product when looking at the ingredient list.

A Word From Verywell

Many people take dietary supplements to meet nutrient needs and support health. Though generally safe, there are some things you need to consider when selecting a supplement to make sure you get the benefits without unwanted side effects. 

Speak with a healthcare provider before adding a dietary supplement to your daily routine. Consider whether or not the product contains GMO's, added sugars, and artificial ingredients, and if it is third-party certified before purchasing. Everyone's needs will be different and factors, such as cost, convenience, and overall health will also be part of determining what is right for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you know if a supplement is good quality?

    When looking for a high quality supplement, read the label of your dietary supplement and look for a third-party seal of quality assurance, such as NSF or USP. This seal means the supplement was properly manufactured, contains only the ingredients listed on the label, and is free of contaminants.

  • What ingredients should you avoid when buying supplements?

    You should avoid dietary supplements that contain a long list of additives and fillers. You also want to avoid buying supplements that have added sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup, sugar substitutes, and sugar alcohols.

  • What are some of the most trustworthy supplement companies?

    The regulatory guidelines set by the FDA says all supplement makers must follow good manufacturing practices (GMP) or current good manufacturing practices (cGMP). These regulations state that supplement companies must make their products in a safe and clean laboratory that’s registered with the FDA. However, there’s no single organization that oversees the supplement industry. 

    When looking for a trustworthy supplement company, look for manufacturers that do third-party testing, are transparent about their products, and offer science-backed supplements.

10 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. FDA. FDA 101: Dietary supplements. Updated June 2, 2022. 

  2. National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. Dietary supplements: What you need to know. Updated September 3, 2020.

  3. World Health Organization. Food, genetically modified.

  4. Karalis DT, Karalis T, Karalis S, Kleisiari AS. Genetically modified products, perspectives and challenges. Cureus. 2020;12(3):e7306. doi:10.7759/cureus.7306

  5. Miles M. USDA. Organic 101: Can GMOs be used in organic products? Published February 21, 2017.

  6. FDA. Food allergens/gluten-free guidance documents and regulatory information. Updated November 29, 2022.

  7. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. Reactions to complementary and alternative medicines. Published September 2020.

  8. American Academy of Pediatrics. Food additives: What parents should know. Updated September 6, 2021.

  9. Kumari PVK, Akhila S, Rao YS, Devi BR. Alternative to artificial preservatives. Systematic Reviews in Pharmacy. 2019;10(1):99-102. doi:10.5530/srp.2019.1.17

  10. Walbolt J, Koh Y. Non-nutritive sweeteners and their associations with obesity and Type 2 diabetes. J Obes Metab Syndr. 2020;29(2):114-123. doi:10.7570/jomes19079

By Jill Corleone, RD
Jill is a registered dietitian who's been learning and writing about nutrition for more than 20 years.