How To Spot A Bad Supplement


“I don’t trust supplements; they aren’t regulated. I’m going to just get what I need from food.” 

I’ve heard these statements from countless people who are first embarking on a health and fitness journey. Based on the general reputation of the supplement industry, I can appreciate the initial sentiment. Although, the ideas of optimal nutrient sufficiency from our current diet and the perceived lack of regulation are both myths.1-4 Our diet is not as nutrient dense as it once was (most of us do not consume nearly as much produce as we should), and the FDA (and the FTC, for that matter) does in fact have a role in regulating the industry and its claims. 

However, the dirty laundry of the nutritional supplement industry seems never-ending. As recently as 2015, the lid was blown off of several recognizable brands and companies when it was discovered that key ingredients on the labels were missing in the products. Earlier this year, a consumer advocacy group, the Clean Label Project, exposed contaminants in several common brands. Earlier this week, headlines were swirling due to a just-released study exposing hidden and potentially dangerous ingredients (ie: pharmaceutical drugs) found in some weight loss, sexual performance enhancing, and muscle building supplements that were not listed on the label. It’s sad and scary, but not surprising, as these specific categories of supplements have been in the negative limelight for quite some time.5-7

All in all, it’s easy to understand why there is a healthy amount of skepticism. 

What’s most frustrating, however, is that the bad apple companies with shady ingredients and manufacturing shortcuts at the expense of their customers’ health end up tainting the broader perception of the industry, despite the fact that there arecompanies, like Life Time, who prioritize the customer’s health and safety above all else. The widespread confusion and distrust is why Life Time decided over two decades ago that there must be full control over formulation, ingredient selection, production, and final testing on what is offered to our members. Through carefully selected partners and rigorous quality control standards, the supplements we offer are the same ones we use for ourselves and for our families. 

As a result, our clients consistently report back amazing improvements to their health, body composition, vitality, gut function, lab work, and performance when the right, quality supplements are combined with healthy nutrition and exercise strategies. 

While it can feel overwhelming, here are a few checkpoints to use as a first-pass screening to weed out the bad guys when it comes to what you’re including in your daily routine. If you see any of the following: run. It’s a sign that the manufacturer is prioritizing their profits over your health. 

1. Cyanocobalamin: A cheap form of Vitamin B12. 

You might need to dig through both the nutrient facts label and the ingredients when looking for this name. As suggested, this form of Vitamin B12 is cost-effective for the manufacturer, but is not the active, natural form of the nutrient. In order to use the cobalamin group from the cyanocobalamin form, our liver must first remove (and eliminate) the cyanide molecule and replace it with a methyl group – an extra step that comes with some unnecessary toxic potential. Tied to heart health, mood, and energy levels, ensure that your supplementation contains the methylcobalamin form of Vitamin B12. While it’s more expensive, it’s worth it when it’s more effective and adds less of a burden on your liver. 

2. Folic Acid: Surprise, it’s synthetic. 

Most people might think of folic acid as the non-negotiable nutrient needed during pregnancy to prevent neural tube defects. Our food fortification laws require dozens of foods to have this synthetic form of folate added, but that doesn’t make it “healthy” or mean it’s beneficial for everyone. Many are surprised to learn that folic acidis synthetic and different from natural folate we require for normal physiologic development and function. Whether or not you’re pregnant, folate is needed for cardiovascular health, DNA synthesis, and prevention of certain types of anemias. Similar to the Vitamin B12 situation mentioned above, it’s key to look through the ingredients and the facts label to check the form of folate found in your supplements. Instead of folic acid, choose supplements that have a methylated folate form, often listed as 5-methyl-tetrahydrofolic acid glucosamine salt or 5-methyltetrahydrofolate. This form is readily used by our cells (does not need to be converted to be put to use) and is less likely to mask a Vitamin B12 deficiency, build up to higher-than-optimal levels in the bloodstream, or interfere with medications.And of course, if you’re pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant, be sure to work with your doctor to ensure you’re taking in the right forms and amounts of folate. 

3. Zinc oxide, cupric oxide, manganese sulfate.

For the best absorption and utilization, minerals often have to be wrapped in amino acids (protein building blocks). When they have this type of wrapping, they’re referred to as “chelated” (pronounced key-lated). 

Lower quality supplements will often have “oxide” forms of zinc and copper, as well as the sulfate form of manganese.9Chelated versions will typically have “chelate” or “bisglycinate” listed in the ingredients and on the label. When supplements contain bisglycinate, take note: it takes up a lot of physical space, so you’re likely going to be taking several capsules. 

4. Artificial Sweeteners (Sucralose, Acesulfame-Potassium), Artificial Flavors, Carrageenan, FD&C Colors and Dyes.

When it comes to colors, flavors, and sweeteners, aim to go all-natural whenever possible. From the supplement line all the way to the food offered in the Life Café, this is a theme and non-negotiable at Life Time, and for good reason. In fact, the FDA recently announced it will “de-list” seven artificial flavoring compounds currently allowed as food additives amid emerging evidence the compounds may cause cancer in animals.

Some evidence points to possible negative impacts of artificial sweeteners on gut health.10 Other research suggests that with our four-fold increase consumption in the last 50 years, artificial flavors could be a contributor to ADHD and behavioral issues, and artificial colors and dyes may even have some carcinogenic activity.11-14 Carrageenan, sometimes used in lower-quality products to enhance the texture of powders and liquids, has been tied to rheumatological and intestinal inflammation and inflammatory bowel disease.15, 16

When using powder-based supplements, higher quality options tend to use natural flavors and colors and are usually sweetened with stevia (sometimes with a gram or two of sugar to offset any bitterness) or monk fruit instead of the unmentionables.  

5. Tablets and gummies. 

The delivery method of a given supplement has significant impact in whether or not the ingredients get used by your body or just end up as expensive waste. Tablets are often compressed and glued together with binders, making them difficult to break down in the GI tract. Gummies, while a genius marketing strategy, have limited space and cannot physically contain therapeutic amounts of certain vitamins and minerals, and they almost always contain a lot of added sugar or artificial sweeteners or colors. 

Powders, gels and capsules (which are filled with powders) tend to be easier to breakdown, liberating the contents so they can be better absorbed. While they’re not as fun as the weakly vitamin-laced, ineffective candy gummies, they are a much better use of your money and efforts.  

6. Outlandish, all-encompassing claims.

Listen: When it comes to supplementation, there is no cure-all. For any company that is having you skip over the basics to instead obsess over a miracle tincture of exotic, remote-island berries, herbs and mushrooms to be taken three times a day, your “nonsense meter” should go off. 

It’s so crucial to first focus on supporting your body’s functioning with what it alreadyshould have and recognize easily: micronutrients (vitamins & minerals), omega-3 fatty acids, fiber and beneficial bacteria to start. If that’s a given, focus on healthy options that make your life easier, such as a quality protein powder made into a quick shake with organic berries and almond butter when you’re running out the door instead of hitting up the drive through for a processed and inflammatory processed food breakfast. Lastly, implement targeted nutrients or botanicals based on your individual goals, symptoms, lab work, and health status with the help of a qualified medical practitioner. If you need help prioritizing, check out the Beginner’s Guide to Supplements

Hopefully, this given you some solid footing in navigating the saturated and sometimes confusing world of supplements. At Life Time, we firmly believe you deserve the absolute best offerings with consistent, uncompromising quality. If you have questions about how to get started or would like to discuss a personalized plan for your nutrition approach, connect with one of our in-club nutrition coaches or e-mail us anytime at


In health,
Samantha McKinney – Life Time Lab Testing Program Manager

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.


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