Have you ever gone to the store to buy vitamin D, or B, or C, and ended up standing in front of shelves loaded with supplement bottles not knowing which to choose?

If so, you’re not alone.

The number of possibilities available for even a single vitamin can be overwhelming with multiple manufacturers, add-in options, ingredients, sourcing, and prices, and most troubling, not knowing if what the bottle claims to contain is really what’s inside. Multiply that by the hundreds of vitamins, minerals, and supplement combinations on the market and the options become truly staggering.

So how does anyone choose?

That’s one of the questions Coastline Registered Dietitian Stephanie Boulay addressed in a recent presentation at the Dartmouth Council on Aging, offering her audience a list of steps and resources to help make the best supplement choices possible.

While adding supplements to your diet should be easy, she said, determining which products are safe, which play well with prescription medications, and which will actually benefit you, can make buying and benefiting from them a complex endeavor.

Supplements can be useful, Boulay said, when someone is deficient in specific nutrients. But, she stressed, the best place to get nutrients into our system is through the food we eat.

“It’s always better to get them from your food because your body will absorb it better,” said Boulay.

If you’re looking to add supplements to your diet or want more assurance that you’ve chosen well in the past, here are tips from Boulay.

  • Consider food sources first: Real food sources contain additional components, like fiber and other food parts, that are beneficial to the body, Boulay noted. There are also benefits to some foods that help the body absorb nutrients better. For both of these reasons, Boulay suggests viewing supple-ments as a useful tool, but not a replacement for the vitamins and minerals we get from food.
  • Work with your doctor: Not only can your physician help you determine which nutrients you need, they can also help deter-mine what amounts are safest. Just because an advertisement suggests a person over a certain age should take calcium, for example, doesn’t mean that every-one that age needs it. Work with your doctor or a nutritionist to know your specific needs. Also, it’s important to note that, when it comes to supplements, more is not always better. Some vitamins and minerals can be detrimental at high doses. Again, listen to your doctor’s recommendations.
  • Understand that the supplement industry is unregulated: Since 1994, when a law saying supple-ments are not food and therefore not subject to regulation, the Food and Drug Administration has not regulated or assessed the quality or effectiveness of supplement products. This means you can’t know with any certainty that the bottle actually contains what’s stated on the label. Without that assurance, buyers must find alternative ways to confirm the quality of products. (The FDA does, however, establish good manufacturing principles for supplement manufacturers.)
  • Look for supplements that have third-party confirmation: Some supplement manufacturers turn to third party testers – independent reviewers that “offer quality testing and allow products that pass these tests to display a seal of quality assurance that indicates the product was properly manufactured, contains the ingredients listed on the label, and does not contain harmful levels of contaminants,” according to the National Institute of Health. These seals of approval can be found on bottle labels. Boulay identified three main testers in her presentation: ConsumerLab. com; NSF International; and U.S. Pharmacopeia.
  • Some supplements will interact with medications: Always check with your doctor to see if supplements clash or affect any medications you are on. For example, according to the NIH, Vitamin K can reduce the ability of the blood thinner warfarin to prevent blood from clotting; and St.-John’s-wort can speed the breakdown of many medicines and reduce their effectiveness (including some antidepressants and heart medications). Knowing which medications you are on and making choices that don’t inter-fere with them is important to good supplement use.

For more information on supplements, check out this fact sheet from NIH: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/WYNTK-Consumer/