• Ruth Marie Dales

Thinking about taking supplements? Read this.

Updated: Aug 1, 2018

(This article first appeared in Muscle & Fitness UK February 2018)

What do you look for when buying a supplement or sports food? Price is usually up there (who doesn’t look at price?) but if price is the main factor you consider I’m here to tell you why that’s just not enough, especially if you are serious about achieving your goals.

So before you spend your hard earned cash I want to give you my top tips on what to consider in a supplement to maximise your progress to reach your goals. These tips will also make sure you are minimising the risk to both your bank balance and to your health.

Before we kick off let’s make it clear; to get the best out of supplements you have to remember they are just that, a supplement to your overall nutrition. It’s important to have a good solid foundation. Aim to use the “food first” approach; wherever possible eat real food!

Once you have a solid nutrition foundation, whether or not you will benefit from supplementation comes down to two things:

1) You as an individual

2) The product itself.

1) Individual factors

Individual factors that can affect your results with a supplement include things like your specific goals, the sport you play and your training methods, other supplements or medicines you take and even how good you are at following the instructions on the packet. These are things that we have a degree of control over. But some factors individual to you are more difficult to change; things like age, pre-existing medical conditions, exercise history, genetic factors, allergies and intolerances etc.

2) The Product

You’ve got your goals set, training and nutrition foundations in place and you’re ready to buy your supplements to help you on your way. Important to remember not all supplements are created equal. There are 5 building blocks that make up great supplement and I consider these when recommending a supplement or using them myself.

SAFETY = how it affects your health both short and longer term

EFFICACY = how effective it is at getting the results it promises





First two considerations when deciding to take a supplement are; is the product safe for humans and has it been shown to work? These are also two main considerations when medicines are being developed. You might think medicines are a far cry from supplements but the reality is, just like medicines, supplements can have side effects, risk overdose and interact with other medicines etc. In fact often the only difference between a medicine and a supplement is whether it has been granted a “Product Licence” which allows them to be legally marketed with claims of how it will help you.

Take Vitamin D for example; you can buy vitamin D supplements from health food retailers and supermarkets. But there are also some Vitamin D products that are actually classed as medicines. In order to get that classification the manufacturer had to demonstrate good quality evidence of the safety AND the how well it works. Once they had demonstrated this the Medicines Health Regulatory Authority (MHRA) granted them a “Product Licence” . Only a handful of nutritional supplements have been granted a Product Licenses; Vitamin D (colecalciferol) is an example of exactly that, where manufacturers have demonstrated good safety data and proven it has an effect. Yay, go Vitamin D!

That’s great news for Vitamin D but for most supplements we will have to do a bit of gathering of the evidence ourselves because we don’t have the convenience of the product license data to fall back on. This can be a challenge even to nutritional and health professionals because the data doesn’t always exist and when it does it can be biased towards making you believe the product is safe and works.

Most people who are shopping for supplements didn’t sign up for hours of evidence gathering; lets be honest not everyone has the time or desire to study Critical Appraisal of Evidence, they just want to click, read an explanation and checkout with their products and get on with the rest of their busy lives. Plus the science behind it can be difficult to interpret and apply to our own goals or needs.

That’s where a good Sports Nutrition or Health Professional comes in useful. If you are unsure or have any questions ASK before you buy! It could save you a lot of time, money and even protect you from risking your safety. The company themselves should be able to answer your questions if you ask. Stay tuned for future articles where I will tackle individual supplements in more detail to help you decide if a product will work for YOU for YOUR goals.


The process of making supplements has rules and regulations. But because supplements are classed as foods its important to know that one manufacturer’s Whey Protein is not always the same as another; they use their own recipes to make the products that you eventually take home. Some companies get away with using lower quality ingredients than you might hope. For example, using milk powder or other bulking agents to bulk out their Whey powders vs high quality Whey Isolate. You might find some products also have doses that might not give you the best effects; some having higher doses (risking adverse effects), others less (risking getting reduced benefit from taking it). On top of that there’s no guarantee that the dose in the capsule/per scoop even matches the dose on the packet. All this can affect both how safe they are and how well they work.

Of course there are plenty of companies that do take extra steps to make sure their products have only the best ingredients and some even perform “assays” to make sure each tablet/capsule/scoop contains the correct dose. But the cost of adding in these quality assurance processes all mounts up, often resulting in a higher priced product. Cheaper is often that; cheap. There are some nutrition company giants who are able to manufacture on a such a large scale that this can reduce the costs down, making them competitively priced even with the added quality assurances. Price really isn’t the whole picture.

Price really isn’t the whole picture.

The gold standard for me are the companies that not only go that extra mile to use quality ingredients and proven doses, but that literally go all the way for the users of their products. I’m talking about those companies that believe the people who use their products, athletes and gym goers alike, deserve to know that the products they are buying don’t contain any hidden nasties. We are talking PURITY: the risk that there could be things in the supplement you are taking that aren’t listed on the label.

An investigation funded by the IOC back in 2001 showed that a worryingly high amount of supplements tested from various countries were contaminated with pro-hormones in high enough quantities to cause an IOC doping violation.http://www.olympic.org/Documents/Reports/EN/en_report_324.pdf

To reduce the risks of these and other unwelcome nasties sneaking into your supplements simply check the website and packaging for the Informed Sport Logo.


Informed-Sport is a Global Quality Assurance program for sports nutrition products, suppliers and manufacturing facilities. The program certifies that every batch of a supplement product and/or raw material that bears the Informed-Sport logo has been tested for banned substances by world-class sports anti-doping laboratory.

The website has a search function where you can find the products that have been through this rigorous certification process. In my professional opinion it’s the best place to start when considering a taking a supplement.

Taking something that might not work is a risk to your bank balance, but taking something that might not be safe or might contain contaminants is taking a risk with your health and/or performance. If you’re a drug-tested athlete you could be risking a positive test. Ironically your supplement could risk the very goals they are designed to help you achieve! Even if you’re not drug tested, ensuring you are taking the right dose of a quality, safe, pure supplement that is proven to have an effect is the best way to reach your health and fitness goals

Ruth xx

#supplements #informedsport #trustedbysport #antidoping #safety #sportsupplements #purity #askthepharmacist

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