One of the results of the COVID-19 crisis has been a surge in interest in certain dietary supplements, particularly those that are focused on supporting immune health. Unfortunately, surges in demand are often accompanied by price spikes and an increase of poor-quality supplements into the market. In this article, we will answer your questions about what you should look for today, and always, in your supplements.
How can you tell if a supplement company is reputable and if they provide safe and high-quality products?
The best indicator of superior quality is independent testing and certification by one of two prominent programs, NSF® International (NSF) and U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP). These not-for-profit agencies have been in operation for many years and are dedicated to verifying the quality, purity, and potency of dietary supplements. They are the gold standards in the supplement industry. If a product has been certified, the company will proudly display either an NSF or USP mark on its label. If you cannot see a mark on the product label, then the product has not been tested and certified.
How does the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ensure supplements are safe?
The FDA is responsible for regulating the vitamin and supplement industry and the pharmaceutical industry. But don’t confuse the oversight the FDA provides for prescription pharmaceuticals to be the same as the oversight it provides for vitamins and supplements. With vitamins and supplements, the FDA provides guidelines for manufacturing practices (among other things). At any time, the FDA can show up unannounced and inspect and audit vitamin and supplement manufacturers. However, note that the FDA does not certify manufacturers or products. The FDA sets standards and then polices manufacturers to ensure manufacturers, distribution warehouses, and even corporate headquarters are following these standards.
Can you trust supplements from well-known brands?
The short answer is, usually. Well-known brands typically have processes and procedures in place to ensure the quality of their products. They are also likely to employ experienced and knowledgeable people that are responsible for their quality programs. However, brand recognition alone is not a guarantee of quality. Look for brands that prioritize quality standards as part of their mission, especially those that share their quality standards and how they ensure quality. If they focus on quality in their message, on their website, and in their product marketing, there is a good chance that they have a strong quality assurance program. However, the best assurance of a company you can trust is independent testing and certification.
Can testing guarantee a product is safe and of high quality?
Product testing is very important but not perfect. There is no magical black box into which you can place a vitamin pill that will quickly kick out an analysis of everything contained in the sample. That is not how testing works. Instead, think of testing in the following way. Manufacturers create tests to verify what is in a product against already known standards for ingredients. There are many different methods used in testing, but essentially testing is looking for an ingredient compared to a known standard.
One of the most important standards for testing is looking for potential adulteration in a product. This is a safety component of testing. For example, testing for heavy metals in fish oil will ensure that a product is free of heavy metals, as this is a known potential concern. Testing standards for fish oil should include heavy metal and contaminant testing, and there is a very well-known and respected third party program that tests for these contaminants in fish oil – International Fish Oil Standards (IFOS). The IFOS Program is the only third-party testing and certification program specifically for fish oils. They set the world’s highest standards for purity, potency, and freshness.
Another example of testing for safety is “micros” testing, which is testing done on all finished products (per FDA guidance) that looks for the presence of microorganisms. This testing is done before a product can be released for sale to the public. It ensures that harmful organisms are not contained in a finished product. The manufacturing procedures used in the cleaning, disinfecting, and the conditions under which a product is manufactured ensures that a product does not contain microorganisms. Testing is a final assurance that those procedures resulted in a safe product.
What should you be wary of?
- “FDA certified” products. The FDA does not certify products or manufacturers, period. Any company that states that their product is certified by the FDA, or that their facility is certified by the FDA, is not being fully honest in its portrayal of its quality programs.
- Logos you don’t recognize. Double-check the logos you see on supplements labels. Some manufacturers put logos on their products that imply a quality certification. Always double-check the logo if you do not recognize it. You may find that a company has put artwork on its label that implies quality testing, but in fact, is not an independent third- party certification.
- Proprietary blends. A “proprietary blend” is a combination of ingredients used only by one supplement manufacturer. It allows the manufacturer to list ingredients as a blend without disclosing the exact quantities of each ingredient. This means that possibly the amount of each individual nutrient may be too low to offer any real benefit. It also makes it difficult to independently test the product, as the exact quantities that are contained for each ingredient within the blend are not known.
Should I worry where the ingredients in my supplements come from?
No, not if you are buying supplements that are independently certified. Testing and certification tests both the raw material and finished product and mandates that raw materials are sourced only from certified facilities. We live in an age of global supply chains. There are both high-quality and poor- quality raw material suppliers found in every country, including China and the USA. Testing is the key to ensure that regardless of where a raw material is coming from, the manufacturer has implemented the highest quality control standards to assure content accuracy and purity.
Why look for Independent or Third-Party Certification?
As mentioned above, the two Gold standard independent certification and testing programs are NSF and USP, but there are others within the supplement industry. The best of these programs not only test products but also inspect manufacturers to ensure they are following proper FDA manufacturing guidelines. They include random, unannounced inspections of everything from material sourcing standards, the quality programs that are in place, the standards used in testing both raw materials and finished goods, and the manufacturing procedures followed by manufacturers.
Independent certification ensures a focus on quality, and that current good manufacturing practices (cGMPs) are being followed by a manufacturer. Following the FDA cGMPs ensures quality in areas that testing alone cannot guarantee. While you may not be able to test for all potential contaminants or adulterated (fake) ingredients in a product, you can reduce the chances of having these issues by knowing your supply chain and the sources of your raw materials. By following the proper manufacturing procedures, you reduce the risk of introducing contaminants, or improperly producing a product and not meeting your label claims.
Real-world examples of quality programs in practice: As you might guess, high standards come at a price. At Theralogix, our top priority is independent certification and implementing the highest quality programs and standards to ensure our supplements are of the highest quality and are safe. We have had to reject raw materials in the past because we have tested them and found them to be below our acceptable quality standards. Our testing has found raw materials that did not meet identity, potency standards, or was found to have unacceptable levels of contaminants. When this happens, we will not use the material and must start again with sourcing new materials for production. This has resulted in being out of stock of some products. But we would rather be out of stock than sell an inferior product to our customers. We pay a higher price for raw materials so that we can source them from suppliers that we know and trust.
Independent or Third-Party Certification Programs provide the best assurance of quality.
The vitamin and supplement industry is a complicated business. Independent certification companies such as NSF and USP have a single focus – quality and public safety. The vast majority of vitamin and supplement companies prioritize the safety of the public above anything else, and the best way for a company to demonstrate that is to have their products independently tested and certified. When a company enrolls in an independent certification program, it is making a public commitment to you to manufacture only the highest quality products and to putting you and your family’s safety first.For more information, follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @Theralogix! Don’t miss an article! Sign up for our newsletter and we’ll let you know when our next article comes out.