Let me confirm something you already know on a gut level; the supplement industry is a capitalist's wild wild west, a profiteers paradise, an unregulated free market, and consumers should beware.
While the ubiquitous white Nutrition Facts box you see on the labeling of packaging looks official, anyone with basic word processing software can create such a representation of the ingredients ostensibly in a product.
When you realize that no one verifies that the actual individual ingredients are in a given product, you realize how much of a decision to buy and take an supplement is based upon trust.
The Nutrition 'Facts'
When supplement companies sell products to consumers they can almost count on the consumers not verifying what they are consuming. Sure the consumers could send products off for testing at 3rd party laboratory but that costs between hundreds and thousands of dollars. While there are some consumer spectroscopy devices coming to market that promise to disrupt multiple industries that prey on the voracious consumer, at the current time consumers have virtually no way of personally determining what they are actually putting in their bodies.
The good news is that one of the really easy ways to make almost certain that you are getting the real stuff is to insist on always buying Pharmaceutical Grade supplements. Why trust Pharmaceutical Grade?
When a University spends six figures (or more) to conduct a major double blind, placebo controlled study with dozens of human participants they absolutely verify that the compounds, ingredients, drugs or supplements they are using are real. The potential negative repercussions of not doing so to them are huge;
- A study conducted with illegitimate ingredients would produce inaccurate results. Scientists know that once their study is published in a journal, their colleagues at other universities will recreate their experiments to verify their findings. Not to mention these scientists have to spend sometimes as much as $30,000 – $40,000 just on the publishing of their studies.
- Many a feud between scientists and universities has it's origins in one researcher challenging the conclusions another reached after a study.
- Making a mistake in process or methodology during a study, referred to as having 'dirty test tubes', can result in a researcher being fired, a Universities reputation being damaged, or an organization losing their funding from the government.
- These guys are seriously motivated to make certain they are using the real stuff and in their laboratories they have the means to do so. So they spend extra to buy Pharmaceutical Grade and so should you!
Pharmaceutical Grade manufacturers and distributors aren't intrinsically more ethical, it's just that they know their products are going to be tested for legitimacy and purity by their most important customers. Business they stand to lose if they put out anything less than the real thing.
What are the grades of supplements?
The purity, dissolution and absorption of a given vitamin are 3rd party tested and verified to meet regulatory standards that come from national Pharmocopia. Pharmaceutical grade can be obtained without a prescription but typically they are sold by licensed health care practitioners. Companies that distribute this grade will typically be Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) certified, so look for GMP Certified on the labeling and websites of the products you order from. It's required to be 98-99% pure, you're never going to get 100% pure, but this grade is required to be within a couple percentage points of it.
Are also high grade, high purity vitamins, although they may not undergo the stringent 3rd party verification process that Pharmaceutical grade vitamins have to. If Pharmaceutical grade is not available you will usually be fine taking Medical grade supplements and the benefits you experience will be very similar.
Cosmetic / Nutritional Grade
These are what you will typically find on shelves of health food stores. They are not tested for absorption or purity, indeed no one actually tests the contents of these products. Usually, there's actually not a huge price difference between this grade and pharmaceutical and in this age of ultra convenient ecommerce, you are really better off just avoiding this grade all together and ordering Pharmaceutical grade online. Supplements of this grade will contain some very dubious extra ingredients, like cornstarch, folic acid and chemical preservatives, some that the FDA does not even require the manufacturer to list on the label.
For additions to food products, think about 'healthy breakfast cereals' that boast to be fortified with vitamins and nutrients, typically this will be very low quality. The food business is a doggedly competitive arena, where mostly consumers make decisions completely upon price, so food manufacturers are almost always looking for the lowest cost individual ingredients.
Feed or Veterinarian Grade
For consumption by animals.
Let's take a further look at the 8 most popular types of Nootropics. The human brain is obviously an incredibly complex system with thousands of different types of processes occurring at any given moment, for Biohackers this gives us a lot of different angles to take on cognitive enhancement. These categories represent hundreds of different mechanism of action that enhance cognition, improve the memory, treat depression, empower neuroplasticity, speed up skill acquisition, help with focus and minimize stress along with preventing and even reversing cognitive decline.
Herbals / Nutraceuticals
Pharmaceutical Grade Stacks?
I've been a pretty hard core consumer of Nootropics for going on 4 years now and I'm increasingly becoming less and less of a believer in the majority of Stacks. You can't fit 3 grams of Piracetam and 1 gram of choline in a single pill, so manufacturers trying to add 5-10 different ingredients to a single pill will need to decrease the quantities to truly insignificant amounts. I believe in taking Nootropics in the dosages recommended by the human studies that demonstrated a cognition enhancing effect from them in the first place, and most Stacks just don't offer this.
Also Stack distributors are less likely to have stringent quality standards for individual ingredients, most Stack distributors are really just white labeling ingredients. Which is a business model prone to low quality, let's say their source of Pharmaceutical grade B vitamins (which comprises say 40% of the ingredients in their Stack) runs out, are they going to stop selling their Stack while they look for a another source of equal quality? Not likely. What they will typically do is switch to another vendor who can get the raw materials to them as soon as possible, irregardless of quality. Where as a company that sells a single ingredient product is much more liable for the quality of that ingredient.
My reservations made, there's several stacks I have been really impressed with personally so I recommend them enthusiastically, they are also confirmed to use pharmaceutical grade ingredients in their Stacks.
Worst case scenario?
In the past decade there's been a couple of highly publicized instances of supplement manufacturers putting out products that actually harmed the health of their customers, like Fen-Phen and 'Craze' the popular pre-workout powder which turned out to be meth. The jail sentences and lawsuits resulting from these instances will hopefully motivate even the most unethical, opportunistic supplement distributor to make sure they aren't selling poison to their customers. The odds of none-pharmaceutical grade product poisoning you or making your sick? Very low.
As some Biohacking experts have said, the biggest risk from being a supplement junkie is:
Having expensive pee
Your liver will automatically filter out superfluous vitamins, nutrients or 'supplement filler' that your system doesn't need or can't absorb.
Certificates of Analysis
Many leading Nootropics distributors (Like Peak Nootropics, Intellimeds or Lost Empire Herbs) proudly display certificates of analysis by 3rd party laboratories, usually in the form of PDF documents, on their websites. These certificates of analysis will show the percentage of the advertised ingredients the product actually contains, any microbial presence (like yeast or mold), along with any trace amounts of compounds like lead or arsenic found. The COAs also provide the name and contact information of the laboratory that did the testing, so you could call them up and confirm the results if you wanted.
Avoid Cheap Supplements
Finding the best deal on any given commodity is highly encouraged, indeed we are regarded as foolish if we don't shop around just a little bit - if you are going to buy a house, car or pair of shoes you really want the best deal since you are getting the same product regardless of how much money you spend. Common sense would dictate that applying the same philosophy to buying supplements would be disastrous, yet cheap wins out consistently online over quality and credibility.
There's two really big problems with buying 'cheap' or 'on sale' supplements
Any drug or supplement that commercially does well is assured to be ripped off by counterfeiters in China.
To qoute former FDA Agent and Forensic Investigator Gary Collins, on counterfeit supplements:
"During my FDA tenure we ran lab tests on all kinds of lookalike pills and capsules. Some cheap/counterfeit supplements had ten times or more the amount of "medicinal" ingredients as was indicated on the label. Worse, some had none, and others simply contained large amounts of sawdust!"
Sawdust is a lot less expensive than producing, sourcing, testing, packaging, transporting and storing some exotic molecule or rare nutraceutical plant extract. So it can be a very profitable business to come up with a cool product name, build a really sharp website, design cool packaging and sell 'sawdust' at a massive markup.
Distributors over order raw supplies from manufacturers, as the expiration dates approach they grow antsy to move the products off their shelves and avoid a loss. They will begin to sharply discount the product, if you buy it you are buying a product with plummeting potency and possibly risking toxicity as the ingredients age and break down. Even worse, sometimes even well known distributors will sell their expired supplies to 3rd parties that are fronts for criminal organizations. They will white label, create fake expiration date labels, and sell the supplies online at a steep discount, since they themselves paid just pennies on the dollar for the supplies.
Obviously you want to get the best deal on your supplements, but if a particular brand or product is significantly cheaper than others on the market, it's good sign it's not legitimate. Additionally if the product or product's website lacks
- Phone number
- Names and email addresses of the people behind the product and company
You can be almost certain it's an illegitimate product that you DO NOT want in your body.
Obviously you are going to pay a premium but good supplements, especially Nootropics will supplement your productivity by at least hundreds and up too many thousands of dollars a month. So economically it's a pretty clear choice between a $70 completely credible product and $39 similar product 'on sale' from a dubious source.
So while there is some risks, it's actually pretty easy to avoid the low quality, scammy and counterfeit Nootropics:
- Look for Pharmaceutical grade or GMP Certified.
- Don't buy 'On Sale', deep deeply discounted or Nootropics that are priced drastically lower than what seems to be fair market value for them.
- Look for a Certificate of Analysis, ask for it if they don't have it displayed on their website.
- Purchase from someone that you can contact easily (Phone number, address, bios of real people behind the company).
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