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December 20, 2023
Supplement manufacturer NOW has released the results of testing it conducted on berberine supplements sold online. None of the products met label claim for berberine content and almost a third of the 33 products tested contained almost none at all.
The results were among the worst NOW has recorded in what is now the 16th round of testing. NOW, which is based in Bloomingdale, Ill., has followed the same roadmap for the tests, purchasing bottles of lesser-known brands sold on Amazon and on Walmart.com.
Berberine is a yellow alkaloid that can be extracted from several plant species, including barberry (Berberis vulgaris), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) and Oregon grape (Berberis repens). It has been studied for its effects on cholesterol levels, some measures related to type 2 diabetes and some risk factors of cardiovascular disease.
Berberine has soared in popularity recently because of a TikTok craze that likened its effects to that of a prominent diabetes and weight loss drug. “Nature’s Ozempic” was the catchphrase shared by numerous presenters whose videos garnered millions of views. Almost none of the presenters seemed to have any credentials in the field of nutritional science.
NOW noted in a press release announcing the test results that, as with other supplement categories that experience demand spikes, the newfound popularity of berberine makes room for producers of subpar products to maneuver.
As it has done in the past, NOW purchased two bottles of each brand. It tested one bottle in its in-house lab and sent the other to Alkemist Labs in Garden City, Calif. for analysis.
NOW noted berberine hydrochloride (HCI) dihydrate is typically used as the supplement ingredient and is most often found in 85-90% concentrations. This means that if a label is claiming a 500-milligram (mg) dosage, the manufacturer would need to put in 550-575 mg of the ingredient to meet that claim.
More than half of products (18 of 33) contained less than 40% of the label claim for berberine content, and nine brands contained less than 10% of label claim.
Claimed dosages ran from 200 to 750 mg. Many studies of the ingredient have used a 500-mg dosage, three times a day.
NOW’s own product claims 400 mg and contained 104% of that claim, according to the tests.
On the plus side, seven products did contain at least 80% of the stated amount of berberine and three had more than 90%. According to federal regulation, a product must have at least 100% of the label claim for an added dietary ingredient, excluding some wiggle room to account for analytical method variability.
Dan Richard, NOW Health Group VP of Global Sales and Marketing and the head of the testing effort, said his company was not surprised that widespread failures were found. However, the fact that no other product (other than NOW’s) contained at least 100% of the label claim was a revelation.
“Unfortunately, experience shows that failures are to be expected. NOW’s testing program only looks at brands we do not recognize or brands that have failed prior testing or brands that make illegal or excessive labeling claims,” Richard told Natural Products Insider. “This round of testing was unique in that we tested 32 other brands, and every single one failed potency testing. A few were above 90% potency.”
Richard said swells of social media enthusiasm will probably lead to more subpar products for sale online in the future.
“It appears that ‘crazes’ do lead to ‘fly-by-night’ brands that quickly launch new products without any quality-control checks. Speed often wins out over quality during craze peaks,” he said.
NOW has shared the results of the tests with officials at Amazon and Walmart, but Richard said he doesn’t expect a response.
“Regrettably, Amazon and Walmart have nothing to say about this problem,” he said. “Each platform has a disincentive to deal with this because the failing brands are marketing machines. They pay a lot of ad fees since they put their money into marketing and not into quality. So, if these failing products are removed or recalled, then Amazon and Walmart will lose income as well.”
Senior Editor, Informa
Hank Schultz has been the Senior Editor of Natural Products Insider since early 2023.
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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