One of the most prominent testing laboratories does not appear to us to be either independent or impartial.
ConsumerLab.com says its stated mission is “To identify the best quality health and nutritional products through independent testing.” Unfortunately, their claim to independence does not appear to us to be valid.
ConsumerLab.com (CL) approaches dietary supplement makers and asks them to enroll in its “voluntary” testing program—for a fee. CL doesn’t publicly disclose its fee schedule, but we know that one company was charged over $4,000 to test a single product. Companies that pay the fee are guaranteed that if one of their products passes the testing under their Voluntary Certification Program, it gets listed on the site and may carry the CL Seal of Approval—and if it fails the testing, the product will never be identified publicly because the results are “proprietary to the manufacturer”!
However, companies that do not agree to pay for the voluntary certification program risk having their products tested anyway through the firm’s “product review program.” If they fail the test, those failures will be publicized on ConsumerLab.com’s website and in the media, with complete details for sale in CL’s Product Review Technical Reports.
This arrangement strikes us as nothing short of scandalous. It sounds like, “Pay up, and you won’t have to worry about the results. Don’t pay up, and you may be exposed to bad publicity.” What kind of game is this?
You might guess from the name “ConsumerLab” that the company was an actual testing facility. But CL actually farms out its product testing. Although the company admits it’s a “third party group” certifying the quality of dietary supplements, CL does not identify the laboratories it uses. Does the company do an annual audit of the labs it uses to make sure they are following Good Laboratory Practices and otherwise operating up to standard? We don’t know, and they’re not saying. Despite all this, CL is often quoted by mainstream media as being experts on supplement safety and testing.
While there are no truly independent certification bodies, some nutritional supplement companies are helping the industry achieve greater transparency when it comes to the manufacturing quality of their products. Emerson Ecologics, for example, has created the Emerson Quality Program, a voluntary certification program for supplement makers that requires documentation audits, product testing, and annual on-site audits. Practitioners and patients can view details about the product’s production processes, raw material qualification and testing, and finished product verification and testing.
Of course, consumers need to inform themselves not only about a product’s safety but, as we noted last fall, about whether they are taking the right form of the supplement, whether it is natural or synthetic, whether there are co-factors that must be taken with it, and whether they are taking the right amount.
- Always read the label. One way to compare ingredients in different products is by using the Dietary Supplements Labels Database, maintained by the National Library of Medicine.
- Do your research or talk to a health professional. Some supplements interact with one another and with different medications—sometimes well, and sometimes not! Moreover, some supplements should be taken in combination with others; for example, calcium needs to be taken with vitamins D3 and K2, or the calcium may migrate to the heart or circulatory system where it does damage, rather than to the bones where it is needed. A trained health professional can offer important advice.
- Talk to your supplement manufacturer. A reputable supplement manufacturer will always have a phone number where they can answer your questions about their ingredients, including where they come from and what safety procedures are in place.
- Check the FDA’s database of supplements illegally spiked with prescription drugs. This database warns the public about tainted supplements—the “bad actors” of the industry—that contain illegal pharmaceuticals or deceptively labeled ingredients. These products may be promoted for weight loss, sexual enhancement, and bodybuilding. The FDA also offers an RSS feed so consumers can be kept up to date with late-breaking additions to the database.
Supplement safety is a complex subject. For more information, see our article on the subject.
Despite the complexities, there are reasons to have confidence in supplements as a whole. Mainstream media like to portray the world of nutritional supplements as the Wild West, with nothing to protect the unwary consumer. This charge may have something to do with the vast flow of drug company advertising. Without it, mainstream media would arguably be bankrupt. But in any case, the charge is false. Supplements and supplement manufacturing are highly regulated.
More importantly, supplements also appear to be among the safest consumer products on the market. As we noted last summer, the US National Poison Control Center’s latest report records only a single death concurrent with supplement use—an “unknown dietary supplement or homeopathic agent”—with no deaths reported before 2009.
That same report shows that, of all products to which we are exposed that might cause harm, pharmaceutical drugs caused 80% of fatalities. More than 100,000 calls to Poison Control Centers, 56,000 emergency room visits, 2,600 hospitalizations, and nearly 500 deaths each year are attributed to Acetaminophen (Tylenol). Acetaminophen overdoses are the number one cause of acute liver failure (ALF) in the United States; they account for 50% of all cases of ALF and carry a 30% mortality rate.
The bottom line appears to be that drugs are highly dangerous while supplements in general are not. Regulation has not made drugs safe, but supplements are regulated as well.