The vitamin that boosts your energy. The herbal supplement that wards off a cold. The pill that helps you to lose weight, or sharpen your memory, or gain important nutrients  . . . chances are, you’ve tried one or more of those without a second thought. If you’re one of the 68 percent of Americans who regularly take at least one supplement, you may be surprised to learn just how unreliable the products can be when it comes to health, effectiveness, and truth in advertising. A 2014 Gallup Poll shows that 94 percent of 200 surveyed physicians recommend supplements to their patients—an understandable figure, given that vitamins and minerals are widely regarded as more “natural” than prescription drugs. This month, Consumer Reports is challenging that assumption to reveal what’s really going on in the marketplace.

While prescription medications available in the U.S. are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration before they reach the consumer marketplace, dietary supplements land on your drugstore shelf without the benefit of that regulation. The companies that produce and aggressively market these products as ways to improve your health are not required to prove that their contents match what’s on the label—to say nothing of being asked to transparently demonstrate their effectiveness or safety. Basic but essential information, including whether a supplement might react negatively when used alongside prescription drugs, is not widely disclosed to consumers, who in turn will often presume that a product is safe absent warnings to the contrary. Without baseline rules of safety, some of the same supplements you might see in your local pharmacy or hospital have been found to contain contaminants and illegal substances. As this troubled market continues to grow, Consumer Reports will be working to inject it with transparency and commonsense safety standards. Until then, you can count on the information in this month’s issue to learn about specific ingredients to avoid at all costs, discover superfoods that can sub in for supplements, and get guidance on what the promises on supplements’ ­labels really mean.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the September 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.