Pharmaceutical Grade Supplements Are a Rip-Off

Summary: If you see pharmaceutical grade vitamins on the label, hold onto your wallet.  It’s more marketing and marking-up prices than about purity.  There is only one way that I know to totally guarantee purity.  Two actually.  Here they are.

Dear Curtis: What in the world do they mean when they say pharmaceutical grade vitamins?  It sounds better but they are almost three times the price.  Do you think it’s worth it?

The short answer?  NO!  It’s marketing.  Actually, it’s marketing through confusion and, from the sounds of your question, it sounds like it’s working.

Have you ever seen something advertised as pharmaceutical grade vitamins?  I have.  And, despite what the name implies they are likely nothing special and not worth the extra money.

But, don’t worry all is not lost.  I’ll try to explain what is going on and then give you a couple of options to make sure you are getting your money’s worth.

What Exactly is Pharmaceutical Grade?

Even as a pharmacist I had a tough time finding a true definition of ‘pharmaceutical grade’.  Which, shouldn’t be a surprise, because I don’t think there is a true definition.  Instead it’s kind of a coined termed used by the industry to make something sound purer than what it really is.

The closest thing I could come to an official definition of pharmaceutical grade was through wiktionary.  It said, “A standard of purity suitable for use as a medicine”.

As a pharmacist, that was an odd definition to read.  I deal with medicines all day and spent six years in school learning about them.  Not once do I remember reading about pharmaceutical grade.  Especially as some sort of standard of purity for medicines.

In short, the term pharmaceutical grade basically means nothing.  As near as I can tell, it’s a made up industry term.

But, there is a universal term of purity that is used by prescription and over-the-counter drugs worldwide.  In fact, those two groups are required by federal law to meet purity standards.  And those purity standards are the USP-NF.

USP stands for United States Pharmacopeia.  The NF part is the National Formulary.  It’s essentially a big list of ingredients that can be used by manufacturers of prescription and over-the-counter drugs that meet purity standards.  Which is set by the USP.  So, without USP ingredients you really can’t guarantee purity.

But, there’s one more little issue you have to deal with.

Yes, your overpriced pharmaceutical grade vitamins are over-the-counter but that doesn’t mean they’ve met USP standards.


You see, vitamins are dietary supplements.  And, even though they are over-the-counter they are regulated differently than a bottle of Tylenol or NyQuil.  As dietary supplements they have a lot more leeway in how they operate and – as you’ve already seen – how they market their products.

I’m not saying it’s a free-for-all for dietary supplements but using terms like pharmaceutical grade is a slick way to say they have higher purity standards than the next bottle of vitamins.  As we’ve already seen, there’s no way to verify that.  Some people may call that taking liberties with definitions.  Let’s not split hairs, right?

But, where I come from, that’s called a lie 🙂

Now that you’re totally confused your next question is likely to be about how do you know you are getting quality and purity in your vitamins without having the wool pulled over your eyes with marketing double-speak.

There are two ways that I can see:

(1)  Look for a product that has the USP Verified Dietary Supplement Logo.

You can click here to see what it looks like:

First of all, this is a voluntary process that a dietary supplement manufacturer can go through.  Most don’t because it involves audits from the USP and a lot of looking in on the business that manufacturers don’t want.  I can’t say that I totally blame them.  But also keep in mind that the USP is non-governmental and non-profit.  Their goal is to be a scientific, non-biased group of ‘judges’ if you will to give some sort of purity standard that consumers like you can use.

I don’t want to get into a debate here about whether we should have regulation of dietary supplements.  Personally, being a freedom-loving, capitalistic American I hate regulation.  It stifles what makes America great: freedom.  I particularly hate government regulation.  You know, the kind where a bumbling bureaucrat comes in whose never had an honest job in his life and tells you what you need to be doing?  But the fact is that if manufacturers keep using deceptiveness to sell their overpriced products (at least that’s the way I view this pharmaceutical grade thing) then it’s only a matter of time before the government tries to weasel their way in.  In the end, that’s a lose-lose for consumers and manufacturers.

That’s why I view my job here as informing you.  If you are informed then you can make a good decision and protect yourself.

(2)  Ask the Manufacturer for A Written Guarantee of Pharmaceutical Purity

I wasn’t exactly sure how to word that because it will never happen.

First of all, you’ll likely get laughed at.

Next, you’ll likely get a long pause and then something to the effect of how they use pharmaceutical grade so it’s the same thing.

It’s not.

The Final Word

With all this being said I don’t think you should avoid any vitamins or supplements just because they say pharmaceutical grade.  If you use a brand that you know and trust, fine.  But if you pay double or even triple the price of other supplements just for the words pharmaceutical grade than you’re likely just wasting good money.

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  2. […] that the whole field was built around pumped up claims and misleading information. Some is subtle, like the words pharmaceutical grade. Others are more […]

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