Dietary supplements and the elephant in the room: Quality

Quite simply, the elephant in the room today in the dietary supplement industry is quality, reliability and integrity — or embarrassingly enough, an absence of these attributes.

3 Min Read

From time to time, a new peer-reviewed paper shines light on quality problems in the dietary supplement industry.

Often, the ingredients — or quantities of ingredients — in nutraceutical products sold on Amazon and other e-commerce platforms are incongruous with the labels. NOW Foods has highlighted this unfortunate state of affairs in a years-long testing program, targeting lesser-known brands selling on Amazon and Walmart.com. The program has demonstrated that legions of consumers have unknowingly been victims of fraud because they are not getting what they paid for, or thought was actually in the product. Many shoppers are relying on these shoddy supplements to produce an advertised health benefit, or as alternatives for FDA-approved medicines that could actually help them.

Last week, we reported on research published in JAMA (the peer-reviewed medical journal published by the American Medical Association) that examined supplements marketed to members of the military. Only five of 30 supplements analyzed met label claims for strength and potency of ingredients, and most of the products contained ingredients banned by the U.S. Department of Defense.

That study included a reference to the practice of grouping many ingredients together within proprietary blends on labels. Valid business reasons may support this practice. But it is also a convenient way to hide the practice of “pixie dusting,” or using trace amounts of an ingredient, while implying a powerhouse benefit for the consumer.

We haven’t even mentioned studies over the years led by Dr. Pieter Cohen of Harvard Medical School, which not only showed the presence of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) in products marketed as supplements, but that brands continue to sell these dangerous products even after being flagged by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Trade associations and industry professionals might counter that these outlier brands are criminals and not the “responsible industry.” To consumers and the mainstream media, this is a distinction without a difference.

Quite simply, the elephant in the room today is quality, reliability and integrity — or embarrassingly enough, an absence of these attributes.

The likes of Nestlé, NOW Foods and Pharmavite may be the Ferraris and Lamborghinis of a $60-billion-plus industry. But in e-commerce especially, these powerful supplement brands — or automobiles to continue the car metaphor — must compete with inferior brands, or AMC Pacers and Ford Pintos. Unfortunately, unsavvy consumers searching for a bottle of gummies or pills can’t take a test drive first so may not discern the difference before spending their hard-earned money.

In a column published in February by Natural Products Insider, ChromaDex CEO Rob Fried advocated for the formation of a new group that would evaluate challenges that arise against existing quality, safety and efficacy standards.

The “substantial growth” of the industry since passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) “has not come from innovation, but rather an increase in the number of sellers — many of whom seem to care little about public health or about compliance,” Fried argued.

What can — and should — responsible companies do to rectify the problem raised by Fried, other than grumble and blame regulators for inaction? In a series of columns and original reporting over the next several months, Natural Products Insider will strive to answer these prickly questions.

Join us for the conversation in editorials, call our reporters with leads for enterprising news stories and be a part of the solution. As the industry approaches the 30th anniversary of DSHEA, let this be a time of reflection and self-improvement.

About the Author(s)

Josh Long

Associate editorial director, Natural Products Insider, Informa Markets Health and Nutrition

Josh Long directs the online news, feature and op-ed coverage at Natural Products Insider, which targets the health and wellness industry. He has been reporting on developments in the dietary supplement industry for over a decade, with a focus on regulatory issues, including at the Food and Drug Administration.

He has moderated and/or presented at industry trade shows, including SupplySide East, SupplySide West, Natural Products Expo West, NBJ Summit and the annual Dietary Supplement Regulatory Summit.

Connect with Josh on LinkedIn and ping him with story ideas at [email protected]

Education and previous experience

Josh majored in journalism and graduated from Arizona State University the same year "Jake the Snake" Plummer led the Sun Devils to the Rose Bowl against the Ohio State Buckeyes. He also holds a J.D. from the University of Wyoming College of Law, was admitted in 2008 to practice law in the state of Colorado and spent a year clerking for a state district court judge.

Over more than a quarter century, he’s written on various topics for newspapers and business-to-business publications – from the Yavapai in Arizona and a controversial plan for a nuclear-waste incinerator in Idaho to nuanced issues, including FDA enforcement of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA).

Since the late 1990s, his articles have been published in a variety of media, including but not limited to, the Cape Cod Times (in Massachusetts), Sedona Red Rock News (in Arizona), Denver Post (in Colorado), Casper Star-Tribune (in Wyoming), now-defunct Jackson Hole Guide (in Wyoming), Colorado Lawyer (published by the Colorado Bar Association) and Nutrition Business Journal.

Hank Schultz

Senior Editor, Informa

Hank Schultz has been the senior editor of Natural Products Insider since early 2023. He can be reached at [email protected]

Prior to joining the Informa team, he was an editor at NutraIngredients-USA, a William Reed Business Media publication.

His approach to industry journalism was formed via a long career in the daily newspaper field. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with degrees in journalism and German, Hank was an editor at the Tempe Daily News in Arizona. He followed that with a long stint working at the Rocky Mountain News, a now defunct daily newspaper in Denver, where he rose to be one of the city editors. The newspaper won two Pulitzer Prizes during his time there.

The changing landscape of the newspaper industry led him to explore other career paths. He began his career in the natural products industry more than a decade ago at New Hope Natural Media, which was then part of Penton and now is an Informa brand. Hank formed friendships and partnerships within the industry that still inform his work to this day, which helps him to bring an insider’s perspective, tempered with an objective journalist’s sensibility, to his in-depth reporting.

Harkening back to his newspaper days, Hank considers the readers to be the primary stakeholders whose needs must be met. Report the news quickly, comprehensively and above all, fairly, and readership and sponsorships will follow.

In 2015, Hank was recognized by the American Herbal Products Association with a Special Award for Journalistic Excellence.

When he’s not reporting on the supplement industry, Hank enjoys many outside pursuits. Those include long distance bicycle touring, mountain climbing, sailing, kayaking and fishing. Less strenuous pastimes include travel, reading (novels and nonfiction), studying German, noodling on a harmonica, sketching and a daily dose of word puzzles in The New York Times.

Last but far from least, Hank is a lifelong fan and part owner of the Green Bay Packers.

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