Are organic supplements actually better?

The farmer's market buzzword is cropping up on pill bottles. But does it matter?

Some time in the past few years, organic became the gold standard for healthy living. If you’re concerned about eating clean, you eat organic. And now, this buzzword has snuck into yet another industry: supplements.

Athletes have always had a complicated relationship with supplements. Certain research suggests that used correctly, dietary boosts can boost, too, your general health and athletic performance. Other studies show that eating your nutrients is the best (and safest) way to make gains. Some headlines even warn of dangerous ingredients packed into our pills.

So are companies like Nova Scotia Organics, Garden of Life, and Orgenetics—which all boast vitamins, minerals, and supplements with that sought-after seal: USDA Organic—the answer? Consider these five points before opting in.

(1) Check for fillers.
One of the most important factors impacting supplements—organic or not—has to do with additives like binding agents and fillers, says Stacy Sims, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist. In synthetic supplements (supplements made by chemical synthesis), these fillers tend to be fructose, glucose, or other substances. And they produce a whole slew of side effects: decreased absorption, allergic reactions (hidden lactose can be a filler, for example), and—most importantly—less room for the vitamin or mineral itself.

“Fillers take up space, reducing the concentration of effective ingredients,” says Sims. “And fillers are fillers—regardless of organic or synthetic.” Even some organic supplements have fillers and binding agents, too.

(2) Natural can be better—but it’s not always better.
A vitamin C supplement made with organic acerola berry matter instead of synthetic vitamin C might sound promising, but in reality, that difference could have very little impact on your health. Though the idea of synthetic vitamins has been demonized, your body can handle and metabolize synthetic vitamins just fine, says Thomas Sherman, an associate professor of pharmacology and physiology at Georgetown University Medical Center. “In most cases, synthetic vitamins are cheaper, too.”

(3) Look for a stamp of approval.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate supplements—so a lot of the industry can be marketing, says Sherman. That’s why it’s so important to be an informed customer. Look for pharmaceutical grade supplements—they’re tested and have no binders, fillers, or additives, says Sims. Usually, these supplements have a U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) label, but you might need to ask, she says. The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) also certifies that certain supplements’ labels match the ingredients in them. You can find a full list of NSF-certified supplements here. “It’s another stamp of approval,” says Sims.

(4) Organic is a choice, but not the only choice.
No one can fault you for wanting to eat cleaner, but remember: Cleaner doesn’t always equate to healthier, says Sherman. Research on the topic is incredibly divided. Some studies suggest organic is more nutritious—other research shows the opposite. “Ultimately, we buy organic because it’s cleaner, safer for the farmers, and safer for the environment,” says Sherman. And if you want an herb- or plant-based supplement to be from a pesticide- and fertilizer-free plant, that’s fine, says Sherman.

(5) Remember: Food is almost always better.
Vitamins and minerals should, whenever possible, be absorbed from a healthy diet, both experts agree. If you’re deficient in something, see your doc about which supplements may be best for you. (Sherman usually only suggests Folic acid for women of child-bearing age; vitamin D, if you’re sun-phobic; and vitamin B12, especially for vegans.)