In an ideal scenario, you would have a balanced that gives you all the nutrients you need. Your meals will be made up of nutritious whole foods like fruits, vegetables, healthy grains, and lean protein with a dose of omega-3 fatty acids.

But because of busy schedules and other factors, many people don’t meet their dietary and nutritional requirements. This is where supplements come in. Read on to find out what they are, what they do, and how to become an educated consumer when it comes to choosing organic supplements and vitamins.

What Are Supplements?

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, supplements include such ingredients as vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, and enzymes and come in different forms like tablets, capsules, soft gels, gel caps, powders, and liquids. While whole foods should still be your first option when it comes to getting all the nutrients you need, supplements can help you get some that you may be missing.

The FDA stresses that supplements cannot “be marketed for the purpose of treating, diagnosing, preventing, or curing diseases.” They also warn that taking supplements may come with risks, so don’t combine supplements, use them with other medications you may be taking, use them as a substitute for prescription drugs, or take too much of them. It is best to consult your doctor before taking them.

Supplements may be especially beneficial for those with special nutritional needs, such as the elderly (calcium and Vitamin D), vegans and vegetarians (protein and vitamins and minerals found in animal products), pregnant and breastfeeding women (Vitamin D), women of childbearing age (folic acid), and people with nutrient deficiencies like anemia (iron).

Synthetic vs. Organic Supplements

There are two kinds of supplements, depending on their components and the way they are produced: synthetic and organic.

Synthetic supplements, simply put, are created in a lab. Vitamins labeled ascorbic acid and similar fall under synthetic supplements.

Organic supplements, sometimes called natural supplements, come from real plant and animal sources. Organic supplements are derived from sources that are pesticide-free so they’re a better option especially for pregnant and lactating women.

There have been no conclusive studies as of yet but some believe that synthetic supplements aren’t absorbed by the body as efficiently as nutrients from natural or organic whole food supplements.

Natural products also tend not to have added sugars, artificial colors, or flavorings. But keep in mind that “natural” can be used ambiguously for marketing purposes, and even natural ingredients can interact with other medications, so do your research and talk to your physician.

How to Choose Supplements

With so many brands and formulations to choose from, selecting a supplement can get overwhelming. The following are some tips from the FDA as well as the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health to help you.

  1. Do your research. But be smart about it. Don’t rely on search engines—they often lead you to websites that are pushing their own products. Instead, check out websites of reputable organizations to learn more about supplements you’re interested in. Double-check the site to make sure it’s run by a government agency, university, or recognized association and not a supplement manufacturer. Also check the references if they’re current and legitimate.
  2. Check the labels. Labels should clearly state the ingredients, proper dosage, allergens, and contraindications. Ask your doctor about anything you don’t understand. and research about anything listed that you don’t understand. Got more questions? Contact the manufacturer—a reputable one will be able to answer your questions.
  3. Know your risks. Pregnant or breastfeeding women, those with medical conditions such as diabetes or hypertension, or those on other medications should get the doctor’s OK before taking supplements. Also keep off the supplements if you’re undergoing surgery and make sure you mention them to your doctor.
  4. Look for third-party certifications. As supplements aren’t regulated the way medicines are, check if a reputable third party (like NFS International) has given the products their approval.
  5. Be up-to-date with product recalls. Sometimes problematic products are recalled, but they aren’t immediately removed from shelves—especially if the products are manufactured abroad. Before trying a new supplement, make sure you check that it hasn’t been deemed unsafe.

Ready to give supplements a try? Head to Healthy Options, which carries a wide range of organic supplement brands.