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Another Voice: Research can ensure consumers they are purchasing good quality supplements

By Sanford Levy, M.D.

As highlighted by the recent front-page story in The Buffalo News, “Four retailers told by state to stop selling supplements,” dietary supplement quality is not guaranteed.

A decade ago, I initiated an intensive self-study of dietary supplement quality and I was shocked. At that time, in an honors system, few manufacturers pursued third-party certification for quality. Over the past decade, while many companies have pursued independent certification by third parties, such as NSF, NPA and USP Verified, there remain many manufacturers with no independent certification.

Note that while a lack of independent certification for quality does not mean that the quality of products manufactured by that company is sub-par, it does mean that the company is in essence asking the public and health care professionals to “trust us.” Also note that the key word to search for on the label is “certified;” the word “compliant” on a label means “trust us.”

Most retailers outsource manufacturing; a gap in regulations is that the labels on the bottles of retailer-branded supplements often do not state the manufacturer. Labels often say “manufactured for …” rather than “manufactured by …” This requires the consumer to do research and inquire as to the manufacturer, and then determine if the manufacturer is independently certified for what is termed “GMP,” or good manufacturing processes.

In a market that is not monitored closely by the government, my advice for years to my patients is “do not shop price,” because unfortunately when it comes to supplements, lower price may mean the product is of poor quality.

How does a consumer select high quality dietary supplements? At the retail level, talk to the store manager and ask: Who is the manufacturer of the store-branded products? How does the store select which brands to stock?

Alternatively, buy a membership to ConsumerLab.com, a company that purchases and analyzes many different popular supplements, and posts which brands passed and which failed the independent verification of contents.

Finally, purchase a brand manufactured by a company independently certified for quality. USP Verified, NPA and NSF each list on the Internet all of the manufacturers that are certified by each of these third parties. Certification requires periodic re-evaluation.

While I don’t want to minimize the issue of quality, it is possible that the testing coordinated by the Attorney General’s Office produced false results. DNA barcoding was used to analyze finished product; some experts assert that barcoding is best applied on raw, unprocessed herbs, as once herbs have been heated, extracted or combined with other ingredients, the testing method may produce inaccurate data.

Sanford Levy, M.D., is a holistic physician, also board certified in internal medicine.