Supplements, multivitamins, and pharmaceutical products aren’t necessarily controlled stringently by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means that those milligrams and gram dosages you see may not actually be verifiable. Plus, the fillers, preservatives, and artificial ingredients could potentially be dangerous.

So, what is a responsible consumer to do?

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Gain some knowledge, perspective, and ample education on these products. By providing yourself with a foundation to use at will, you’ll also increase the probability of avoiding dangerous products and ensuring that what you’re consuming is accurate, high-quality, and beneficial.

Terminology Time

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When it comes to sussing out the difference between supplements, multivitamins, and pharmaceuticals, the best place to start is with the actual terminology. Not simply understanding the terms themselves, but the wording that generally goes along with each product. It’s truly a complicated web of language, but once you know what to look for it’s really actually simple!

Dietary Supplements

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The term “dietary supplement” is exactly what you’d think — a supplement to your diet that may increase a deficiency or add balance. Alright, if we’re going super technical, the actual definition of dietary supplement is “a product taken orally that contains one or more ingredients (such as vitamins or amino acids) that are intended to supplement one’s diet and are not considered food.”

Depending on the type of dietary supplement, they can “help you get adequate amounts of essential nutrients if you don’t eat a nutritious variety of foods,” yet it’s important to note that “supplements can’t take the place of the variety of foods that are important to a healthy diet.”

Hence that whole supplement part of the dietary supplement.

Yes, dietary supplements contain vitamins, but they can also “contain minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids, enzymes, and many other ingredients.” Dietary supplements also come in a “variety of forms, including tablets, capsules, gummies, and powders, as well as drinks and energy bars.” Each form requires additional ingredients — most gummies require gelatin and most tablets have artificial flavors.

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That many other ingredients part tells you a lot about the fact that dietary supplements can have lots of things you may not necessarily want. This makes it even more important to review the ingredients label thoroughly. Yet, it’s important to know that dietary supplements are required to come with a “supplement facts label” which “lists the active ingredients, the amount per serving (dose), as well as other ingredients, such as fillers, binders, and flavorings.”

All the info is there, you just have to take the time to look!

Multivitamins

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You may think the term multivitamin is pretty self-explanatory, but, in reality, it’s actually not.

Multivitamins — also referred to as MVM supplements, as they can be mineral-based — “contain a combination of vitamins and minerals, and sometimes other ingredients as well.” You may also see these referred to as “multis and multiples or simply vitamins.” What’s even more confusing? Multivitamins are actually a sort of subsection of dietary supplements, so you’ll also see them called multivitamin supplements and shelved with other dietary supplements.

With that said, while dietary supplements can contain everything from garlic extract to turmeric extract to an herbal-vitamin-mineral-chemical concoction, a multivitamin or mineral supplement generally should stick just to that … vitamins and minerals.

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It’s important to note that multivitamin manufacturers are the ones that “choose which vitamins, minerals, and other ingredients, as well as their amounts, to include in their products.” With that said, most companies choose to stick to government-mandated recommended amounts, yet not all. Be aware of high doses of certain vitamins — which oftentimes “come in packs of two or more pills to take each day” — as well as those that are marketed for “special purposes, such as better performance or energy, weight control, or improved immunity,” as these products “usually contain herbal and other ingredients.”

Read the label!

Make sure that the amounts in your multivitamin are close to either the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs), Adequate Intakes (AIs), or the Daily Value (DV), which are government-regulated amounts that have been shown safe for human consumption.

Just because there’s more, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better for you.

Pharmaceuticals

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Now we get to the big one — pharmaceutical.

Per the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine of the Royal Colleges of Physicians of the United Kingdom, you start looking at the term pharmaceutical by defining pharmaceutical medicine, which is “the medical scientific discipline concerned with the discovery, development, evaluation, registration, monitoring and medical aspects of marketing of medicines for the benefit of patients and the health of the community.”

Simply put, it’s the art of selling pharmaceuticals.

Alright, what are pharmaceutical medications? These are “chemicals that are designed to prevent, diagnose, treat, or cure a disorder … in laymen terms, we simply call them medicines.” Keep in mind, there are an “immense number and [type] of pharmaceutical drugs,” designed to aid almost every type of condition known to medical science.

Yet, returning to the Royal Colleges of Physicians, there’s a lot more to a pharmaceutical med then the simple creation and distribution. There’s also “clinical testing of medicines, translation of pharmaceutical drug research into new medicines, safety and well-being of research participants in clinical trials, and understanding the safety profile of medicines and their benefit-risk balance.”

It’s not simply up to you as a consumer, but your physician also has to obtain a “thorough understanding of pharmacoeconomics, medical aspects of the marketing of medicines, business administration and the social impact of healthcare on patients and public health,” in order to truly prescribe a medication to a patient.

That’s what pharmaceutical reps and pharmaceutical-sponsored conventions are designed around.

Plus, there’s a whole onslaught of pharmaceutical physicians — doctors that “work in the pharmaceutical industry,” yet maintain a position or relationship with “medical colleges in primary and secondary health care and at universities.”

Simply put, there’s a lot of hands in the pot of a single pharmaceutical drug — from the invention to testing to financing to marketing to selling.

The Food and Drug Administration Guidelines

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Now that we’ve got the terminology down, it’s time to take a closer look at how our government regulates, guides, and advises upon each of these products. This may actually be the most important part of the pie! While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can’t always guarantee 100 percent safety and efficacy of their systems, their involvement absolutely increases the consumer’s ability to trust in the quality and ingredients label of the product.

Supplements and Multivitamins

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As multivitamins are actually a subcategory of dietary supplements, they both follow the same guidelines.

When it comes to dietary supplements, there are two sides to the coin: guidelines for the manufacturer and guidelines for the consumer.

For the manufacturer, there actually aren’t that many regulations.

The Food and Drug Administration “regulates both finished dietary supplement products and dietary ingredients.” With that said, they regulate dietary supplements “under a different set of regulations than those covering ‘conventional’ foods and drug products.” This basically means that supplements don’t suffer the same severe scrutiny that food and pharmaceutical drugs do.

First and foremost, while manufacturers and distributors of dietary supplements and dietary ingredients “are prohibited from marketing products that are adulterated or misbranded.” This means that the companies themselves “are responsible for evaluating the safety and labeling of their products.” Luckily, the companies must “ensure they meet all the requirements of DSHEA [Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994] and FDA regulations” and the FDA is tasked with “taking action against any adulterated or misbranded dietary supplements product after it reaches the market,” as long as they catch it.

When it comes to labeling, there’s actually a guideline of almost any type of label out there including Liquid Dietary Supplements, Substances added to Foods and Beverages, Ephedrine Alkaloids, Nutrient Content Claims, to name just a few. There are also labeling guidelines when it comes to warning statements, new dietary ingredients, and substantiation for claims, to name just a few more.

For the consumer, there’s LOTS of information to know about how these pills are regulated.

While there are a host of FDA guidelines — almost too many to remember — there are a few that stand out and should be noted. Here are a few:

  • “Federal law does not require dietary supplements to be proven safe to FDA’s satisfaction before they are marketed.”
  • “For most claims made in the labeling of dietary supplements, the law does not require the manufacturer or seller to prove to FDA’s satisfaction that the claim is accurate or truthful before it appears on the product.”
  • “FDA’s role with a dietary supplement product begins after the product enters the marketplace. That is usually the agency’s first opportunity to take action against a product that presents a significant or unreasonable risk of illness or injury, or that is otherwise adulterated or misbranded.”
  • “Dietary supplement manufacturers do not have to get the agency’s approval before producing or selling these products.”

Basically, a supplement company has full reign to create, promote, and begin selling their product without almost any interference by the FDA. With that said, once the supplement hits the market, “dietary supplement firms must report to FDA any serious adverse events that are reported to them by consumers or health care professionals.”

So, when it comes to dietary supplements and multivitamins, consumers are the guinea pigs. That’s why it’s so incredibly important to read the ingredients labels. Most of the regulations that these companies follow have to do with labeling.

Pharmaceutical Medications

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On the other hand, when it comes to pharmaceutical medications and drugs, there are too many regulations and guidelines for consumers to even consider.

This is a good thing!

Specifically, the FDA actually has a group designed to watch out for the safety of drugs, called the Consumer Watchdog for Safe and Effective Drugs (CDER). CDER was designed to “evaluate new drugs before they can be sold” by ensuring that “drugs, both brand-name and generic, work correctly and that their health benefits outweigh their known risks.”

When CDER uses the word “drug,” they’re actually referring to a wide range of products including prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, generic drugs, and other drug-related products such as “fluoride toothpastes, antiperspirants, dandruff shampoos, and sunscreens.”

Of course, “vitamins and dietary supplements can be sold without prior approval from the FDA and are regulated by the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition,” and don’t fall under CDER’s scrutiny.

Before a drug is allowed to be sold, it must pass over a variety of hurdles including an incredibly thorough drug development and review process. Per the Food and Drug Administration and CDER site, the process goes like this:

“Drug companies seeking to sell a drug in the United States must first test it. The company then sends CDER the evidence from these tests to prove the drug is safe and effective for its intended use. A team of CDER physicians, statisticians, chemists, pharmacologists, and other scientists reviews the company’s data and proposed labeling. If this independent and unbiased review establishes that a drug’s health benefits outweigh its known risks, the drug is approved for sale.”

With that said, it’s important to note that CDER “doesn’t actually test drugs itself, although it does conduct limited research in the areas of drug quality, safety, and effectiveness standards.”

Big Money Influencing Pharmaceutical Medications

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As you can see, all three products — supplements, multivitamins, and pharmaceuticals — have potential dangers to be aware of. Yet, ironically enough, those that are the most highly regulated — we’re talking pharmaceuticals here — are actually the most dangerous. This is not only due to the chemical content, but it’s also about the “behind the scenes” of these companies, the big money influences, and the possible dramatic damage that can be sustained.

While the government as enforced as strict safety guidelines via CDER as possible, there’s a lot of backdoor wheeling and dealing that goes on when it comes to big money companies.

In an article by Science Magazine entitled Hidden conflicts? Pharma payments to FDA advisers after drug approvals spark ethical concernthe process and potential ethical issues are laid out.

How does it work?

In order for the FDA to approve a drug, a meeting takes place to vote on the drug involving medical researchers, physicians, and patient advocates. During the meeting, the pharmaceutical company gives a presentation in which medical data and clinical trials are presented. The FDA takes painstaking precautions via a “well-established system to identify possible conflicts of interest before such advisory panels meet,” given that they either approve or deny a drug based upon these meeting outcomes.

Unfortunately, one example discovered a hole in their process.

When the drug Brilinta hit the market, all seemed great. This multi-billion dollar drug was meant to “prevent heart attacks and strokes by limiting blood clotting” and it was selling like gangbusters. Yet, the big companies behind the drug — AstraZeneca and other firms — began to splurge large quantities of money on four physicians that had been part of the advisory group. These payments were supposedly for “travel and advice.” These are called “pay-later conflicts of interest,” and they have “gone largely unnoticed — and entirely unpoliced.”

Due to excellent reporting by Science Magazine journalists, they reviewed “compensation records from drug companies to physicians who advised FDA on whether to approve 28 psychopharmacologic, arthritis, and cardiac or renal drugs between 2008 and 2014,” and found “widespread after-the-fact payments or research support to panel members.”

This is just one example of many regarding how big pharma has influenced those that stand in their way over the years.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be taking pharmaceutical medications. Some of us wouldn’t survive without them. All it means is that a little bit of research and digging may be necessary on the consumer’s part in order to verify that the drug you’re taking is a verifiably and ethically produced drug.

Brands You Can Trust

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As scary as it is, there are a handful of companies out there that have your best interest and health at heart. Yes, that’s hard to imagine, but it’s true! Here are five of the most trusted brands of supplements and multivitamins that you can feel good about purchasing. You’ll note that pharmaceuticals are not included on this list, as those are doctor prescribed. Just make sure you ask the right questions, talk with your doctor, and do the necessary research before beginning any pharmaceutical regimen.

Of course, it’s always important to speak with a medical professional before embarking on a new supplement regimen!

1. Garden of Life

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If you’ve followed any of my articles then this one doesn’t cause any surprise. Garden of Life is one of the most trusted brands of supplements and multivitamins available. They carry a host of incredibly hard to obtain government-regulated certifications including certified USDA organic, non-GMO verified, certified Vegan, certified Gluten-Free and NSF certified, Kosher certified via the Orthodox Union’s Kosher Division and Star-K Kosher Certification, Green-e Energy certified, LEED Gold certified, and B-corp certified.

Garden of Life not only follows the FDA guidelines, but they also have self-proclaimed guidelines including creating products based on the natural ingredients in whole foods, keeping out chemicals and unhealthy ingredients, and achieving maximum traceability. Traceability refers to “knowing where each and every ingredient in our product comes from and getting to know each and every source.”

2. MaryRuth’s Organics

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This is yet another one that pops up on vegan supplement lists almost every single time! MaryRuth’s Organics not only offers a huge variety of types of supplements, but they also focus on organic ingredients and vegan-friendly recipes. Run by Mary Ruth, a Certified Health Educator, Nutritional Consultant, and Culinary Chef, this company focuses on providing wholesome supplements for the entire family. They focus on products that are non-GMO, plant-based, vegan, with as few allergens as possible.

3. DEVA 

Deva Vegan Multivitamin and Mineral Supplement/Amazon.com

Deva is one of those super exclusive companies that make solely vegan supplements. These companies are few and far between as they need to go a step further in the process to find chemical-free vegan-friendly alternatives for their supplements. Yet, Deva goes even further with earth-friendly certifications including Labor Day, the Vegan Society, Co-op America, and America Forests certifications. Their mission is to “deliver high-quality vegan/vegetarian vitamins and supplements with the best value to our customers,” while focusing on both health and planet-conscious practices.

We also highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!

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