Wellness LetterFoundations of WellnessDietary SupplementsDietary Supplements: The Private Watchdogs

Foundations of Wellness

Dietary Supplements: The Private Watchdogs

Some supplements carry “seals of approval” from independent certification
programs, which claim to keep tabs on the supplements industry.

ConsumerLab.com. The best-known certification program comes from this private company, which has analyzed thousands of products in most popular supplement categories. ConsumerLab.com randomly buys products from stores, from catalogues, over the Internet, or through multilevel marketing companies and coordinates its testing at independent labs. The labs test for identity of ingredients, strength, contamination, and ability to disintegrate. If a product passes muster, it can then, for a licensing fee, display the ConsumerLab. com “Approved Product Quality” seal on its label and in advertising, subject to periodic retesting. Manufacturers may also pay to have their products tested under ConsumerLab.com’s Voluntary Certification Program.

The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP). This nonprofit organization, which sets standards for drug manufacturers, also certifies supplements that pass testing under its Dietary Supplement Verification Program. For a fee, manufacturers can have products analyzed for accuracy of labeling, purity, and speed of disintegration. USP, unlike ConsumerLab.com, tests more than the finished product; it also makes sure the supplement is made according to good manufacturing practices. If it passes testing (and random retesting) and an on-site manufacturing plant audit, the product may display the “USP Verified” seal.

NSF International. This nonprofit organization, best known for certifying bottled water and water filters, also evaluates supplements under its voluntary certification and testing program. Products made under good manufacturing practices, with accurate ingredient labels and no contaminants, may display the NSF seal. Testing is done, for varying fees, in NSF’s own accredited labs.

Certification programs help ensure that a supplement contains what it claims,
without impurities. But they have limitations, such as these:

There is debate about the testing methods used, which can vary from lab to lab. If a product passes in one lab, it may not pass in another. Companies may test samples from only a few lots, and different lots can vary widely in quality and purity.

Products that fail are not always identified. If a product doesn’t meet testing standards, nothing on its label will warn you.

Products without seals are not necessarily inferior. They simply may not have been tested.

The seals don’t address the big questions: Is the product safe—and does
it work? While the seals are evidence of passing tests for manufacturing quality, they are not proof of safety or efficacy. The supplements may still interact with drugs, be dangerous if you have medical conditions, and/or have unexpected side effects and unknown long-term effects.

Filing A Report

If a dietary supplement produces unexpected side effects or causes other problems, report it to  the FDA as well as to your health care provider. This is the main way researchers learn about  adverse effects. Your reports can help the FDA get bad products off the market or lead to changes in the use or labeling of medication. You can file a report at www.fda.gov/medwatch; for  supplements, you can also go to the FDA’s portal www.safetyreporting.hhs.gov. To file your report by mail or fax, call MedWatch at 800-332-1088 for the form. Your health care provider can file a report the same way—you might suggest this.

Canadians should file reports with Health Canada.

In particular, beware of undesirable interactions if you take supplements as well as medication (over-the counter or prescription) —and report them if they occur. The frequency of adverse reactions is not known because they are seldom reported to the government, even by doctors or pharmacists. For instance, one Canadian study found that half of 132 pharmacists surveyed had seen likely interactions between drugs and supplements in patients, but only two reported them to the government.

You can report misleading ads to the Federal Trade Commission by calling 877-FTC-HELP. You can also use its online Complaint Form— FTCcomplaintassistant.gov.

It may be more effective to complain to your county’s office of consumer affairs, which may lead the district attorney to take action against the questionable product.