Perusing the supplement industry “rags” I noticed something I really hadn’t paid much attention to in the past. Everyone, I mean, EVERYONE, talks about quality. They talk about how their products are quality, how great their products are for you, and how THEY have the evidence behind it all.
We’re going to beat those claims up on all sides eventually, but this month I’d like to focus on the “appeal to authority” that’s done. That is, using terms and third-party certifications to defend their claims of quality. As with everything in this industry, it’s not all that meets the eye.
There is no more asked question to our Natural Products Advisors than, “How do I know what’s good and what’s not?” In other terms...
How Do We Define Quality?
One would hope that we consumers could have a comprehensive, reliable source for figuring out quality in the supplement industry. From listening to us ranting (in person or from these sometimes late but always timely emails), we know that it isn’t the case. No oversight, no controls - just thinly laid ground rules with no resources to enforce them.
We've talked before about quality seals that don’t mean anything anymore, like USDA Organic, because of corporate influence and dilution of the standards. You’ve heard us take on “Natural”, “Whole Food”, and “Raw” as unregulated words used to boost confidence in cheaply made, synthetic chemicals posing as nutrition. The same tricks are used as it pertains to quality.
Because there isn’t a universal, unified approach to regulating quality, a Hodge-podge of organizations crops up to attempt to solve our problem. We want to highlight a few of them, applaud some for what they are doing, but criticize others that are missing the mark.
More Words That Don’t Mean Anything
Tested and Recommended
Starting at the general and working our way to the specific, we’ve seen and heard marketing that touts that a product or brand is “tested.” “For what?” we ask inquisitively… Tested for purity? What purity tests are they doing? Are they testing thoroughly for the type of product it is? How about testing for potency? Does it have what it says on the label, every single time? Or are they simply shouting Social Studies questions at the bottles during manufacturing? A very important fact: just because they are tested, doesn’t mean they have to pass…
What about the appeal to authority? Doctor recommended! Pharmacist recommended! Yeah? I know a lot of pharmacists and doctors from my time in school and after. Most shine like stars, others fizzled out a long time ago. There are healthcare professionals out there recommending silly stuff. Sometimes, those healthcare professionals get dragged in front of Congress to testify on their false claims about supplements, then go back to their TV show with nothing changed.
Mostly therapy recommendations are solid, whether from individual practitioners or industry groups. We’ve seen companies use this consensus data and extrapolate it to their specific product. For example, doctors may recommend a therapy like melatonin. Some marketing guy takes that data and uses it in Bob’s Brands Melatonin 0.5mg campaign. The problem is Bob’s brand isn’t the studied dose or form, making that Doctor’s Recommendation a false claim...
You know the drill here, that’s why we’re taking a light-hearted approach in this section. Just because someone has a degree, doesn’t make them inherently trustworthy. It may help, but sometimes these people are just shills.
We were approached recently to be featured on a health and wellness TV show. “Our goals align,” they said. What they then said was that the show requires a $17k “scheduling fee” to be on. Our goals didn’t align anymore. From this - how many industry experts portrayed on TV pay to play? The bias is slanted to those with money to spend. I wonder what other shows, blogs, and organizations require a “scheduling fee” for featured guests? Maybe that professional recommendation came with a price tag, one way or the other.
This is one we see or hear a bunch, usually applied to fish oil products. We’ve heard practitioners recommending people check for only pharmaceutical-grade supplements. It sure SOUNDS like high quality. One would think it would fit the bill, but nope.
It’s not a real term in the legal world (much like “natural” or “whole food”), so it can be used without really meaning anything.It has strong implications of course; hearing that term gives us feelings of authority, and most importantly, accountability. Unfortunately, you can’t get quality by association.
Let’s bite for a second and agree Brand X’s product is “pharmaceutical grade.” What *could* that mean? Does it mean the raw materials are from trusted, credentialed suppliers? Are the materials pure, potent, and consistent? Are the quality controls on the ground floor insanely stringent? Are the end products quarantined and tested before release, then tested while out in the wild to ensure no other problems crop up?
The pharmaceutical industry is VERY tightly regulated as it pertains to quality. “We’ll say our stuff is as good as they are!” But it’s not even close, and they can’t prove it. From the horse’s mouth:
“The Food and Drug Administration does not have a regulatory definition of pharmaceutical grade for dietary supplements.Supplements are not required to be approved.Manufacturers are not required to submit safety or effectiveness data to the Agency.”
Until a manufacturer proves they go through the very rigorous testing and oversight a drug product goes through, they’re just talking smack.
Therapeutic Grade Essential Oils
Along the same lines, the essential oil industry lacks a unified, standardized approach to determine quality and purity. In the US, there is no grading system for essential oils. “Therapeutic grade essential oil” is just a marketing claim. I recommend checking out this article which discusses a little bit of the history of the misinformation, perpetuated by the Young Living Company.
While our brands also use the “Therapeutic Grade” claim occasionally, they are in our stores because of extensive adherence to quality processes. For example, they must be tested for solvent residues like acetone, hexane, and more. We only allow cold pressing, steam distillation, and supercritical extraction. We check for all possible adulterant testing. On our Woodstock Vitamins oils, it even lists this data on the label for all to see!
Organic is another word used to represent quality. Throwing the term organic around is another way to differentiate your product and many times it is justified. In the food world, the organic seal is a great start for confirmation of quality, but it has been degrading over time.
Vitamins and enzymes are exempt from organic regulations, so you can put any vitamins made from who knows what into the supplement and still get the USDA seal, as long as at least 95 percent of the other ingredients (like fillers, binders or foods) in the pill are organic. (See here and here)
Foods can be supplemented with GMO-sourced or non-organic vitamins(like B12, Folic Acid, etc) and yet still earn the USDA Organic Seal.
Speaking of GMOs…
We appreciate someone stepping in and trying to do something about the transparency of GMO products. If you choose to avoid them, you should be allowed to do so. Unfortunately, there is no legal requirement for proper labeling. The Non-GMO Project is certainly trying, but they admit that adherence with their standards doesn’t mean the product is GMO-Free. When using a product’s GMO status as a measure of quality, please know it’s not always black and white.
This is something we’ll see on plant-based supplements and even foods. Clarification is necessary as pesticides are made by plants! Pesticides are also used in the organic farming process. It would be nearly impossible to consume a plant that is pesticide-free, as it is part of the plant’s natural defenses. If the farming process uses absolutely no pesticides, I can see where they’d want to brag about it, but it doesn’t mean you are 100% free of pesticides...
Many of the above examples are not only not validated, but self-awarded. It reminds me of Michael Scott from the Office. He’s got that mug - “World’s Best Boss”. But he bought it for himself. The phrase is meaningless (there is no assessment for “World’s Best Boss”) and applying it to yourself isn’t really the way certifications and credentials work.
Third Party Quality Checks
Now that we’ve dispelled some of the words or phrases used by companies to build a false level of quality, let’s dive into agencies and groups trying to help out in one aspect or another.
USP is an independent authority that companies can register with and pay to use their seal if they meet their criteria. They claim to verify the potency and purity of the supplements. This is a great start! If we could accurately know that the product we are getting is in fact what it says on the label, the world would be a different place.
The problem lies in third-party analysis outside of USP Verified. We’ve seen examples of brands that attain the “USP Verified” seal yet don’t meet labeled claims. Nature Made is a big company who advertises about how their supplements are USP Verified all over their marketing. Yet when Lab Door checked their Vitamin D chewable, the label was off by, sixty percent. Their Multi-For-Him product didn’t do so well either.
Now the evidence we bring is small and we could bring much more if we had all day to discuss this, but something’s missing somewhere if any company fails third-party analysis, especially ones touting membership into an exclusive club of quality products.
USP Verified also doesn’t check for most adulterants and solvent residues. Solvent residues are the remnants of the chemicals used to extract the active ingredient, mostly found in herbs. Hexane, an industrial solvent, is used in some of the lower quality brands and probably isn’t something you’d like to ingest every day forever.
For example, their monograph of Ginko makes no mention of testing for adulterants like Saphora japonica or quercetin for example, which can make tests appear to have the correct peaks. It also makes no mention of testing for illegal solvent residue, a big problem in botanicals that come from China.
So, we think the intention of USP Verified supplements are good, based on our research using third-party analytics, but we can’t hang our hats on it for an infallible mark of quality.
Consumer Lab is a company we use to supply us with a piece of our quality “pie”. They have a seal that companies can opt-in to as well. However, just like the USP Verified seal they do not check for most adulterants and contaminants.
For example, here is what they test for on turmeric. They only test for heavy metals, claimed amounts, and disintegration of the pill. They do not test for illegal solvent residue (ethylene dichloride), synthetic curcumins, mentanil yellow, and other possible issues commonly found in turmeric supplements.
NSF certification is another company people can pay to have their seal.In 2006, for example, Beehive Botanicals received this letter from the FDA for quality control issues. They then decided they needed help to get their act together. Great! Bravo! We like to hear this! They got NSF certified. Unfortunately, in 2013 when the FDA went back it happened again. Those failures are of basic manufacturing processes. Hopefully, this is an individual case and NSF Certification has helped make the industry better.
Sure. There’s the Natural Products Association GMP Certification. This is something we define as crucial. If you can’t attain a certification stating that you are following the minimum manufacturing standards the FDA has laid out, then you probably are doing a bunch wrong.
NPA GMP Certification does NOT, however, tell anything about the product itself. It doesn’t talk about adulteration of raw materials or solvent usage, again. It strictly discusses and monitors adherence to the basic Federal rules. A very important step, not the end goal.
So What Do We Look For?
I bet you’re looking for some inside information on how we determine quality, aren’t you? Well, let’s take a look at some of the things we focus on...
As you can tell, we try to ignore all claims to quality from a manufacturer. We strike out on our own and ask what we feel to be the right questions. We’re not perfect either, but we are trying our best.
For all products, there are basic manufacturing requirements. Who are their suppliers of raw materials? What does the company do when they receive the raw materials (do they get verified? do they get quarantined?). Do they exceed GMP, not just meet minimum standards?
Contaminant and adulteration prevention is a big piece of the pie. What are they doing to prevent this? What are they testing for?
This information is tough to come by. If we don’t receive it, we don’t consider the company as a brand we should sell. We often have to sign confidentiality agreements to get the information disclosed by the company. We’ll ask industry insiders. We use third-party consumer advocacy groups. And most importantly, we spend a lot of time keeping up to the minute with industry scandals.
Always Smoke and Mirrors
Here’s the bottom line: there are organizations that create labels of quality, and some of them are definitely trying to make the world a better place. These labels and certifications though, in our opinion, are not comprehensive enough to remove most of the quality concerns a consumer should have.They only show a passing glance at one of the many measures of quality. Having a single measure or affiliation does not necessarily grant you into the exclusive club of quality products.
The manufacturers know this. Companies in this industry will use any type of scheme or angle to earn your trust. In the end, it’s a marketing deception.
Our vision is that Woodstock Vitamins someday becomes a leading source of that quality confirmation for consumers. We’re taking steps, and with your support, we get closer to that every day. Thank you for trusting us. We hope to always reaffirm your confidence in us!
Our Woodstock Vitamins Products are Vitality Approved so you can be sure that you're getting quality products: pure, potent, and consistent batch to batch.
Just trying to keep it real...
Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth