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Enter Supplement Quality, Stage Right . . .
New Initiatives in Supplement Quality Standards
4 December 2000
by Wyn Snow, Managing Editor

In the ongoing drama of controversy surrounding nutritional supplements, the appetite of the American public for better health and longer life is driving a diverse cast of characters -- including the federal government, supplement suppliers and standards-setting organizations -- to radically rethink their roles in the passionate debate over supplement quality.

As each new player joins the fray, the suspense deepens: Will this new protagonist make it easier for consumers to navigate the supplement shopping aisles? Or will a plethora of competing quality standards simply add to the confusion?

Rewriting the script

The stakes are high: the overall market is worth over $16 billion annually in the US alone for vitamins, minerals, and botanicals. "Nutraceuticals" and functional foods (supplements combined with foods, the most prominent of which are breakfast and diet products) are worth even more. Also at stake is consumer confidence and continuing skepticism among much of the medical profession as to the value, if any, of supplements as a whole.

Unlike pharmaceuticals, which are proprietary and thus patentable, most supplement products are based on natural or refined plant-based products that cannot be patented. This has placed severe constraints on product testing and efficacy research, two mainstays of the pharmaceutical industry's intrinsic value and economic success.

During the last year, in part due to the long-term effects of federal legislation liberalizing the basis on which supplements are made and marketed, industry players are determined to give credibility a starring role in an industry that has been fraught with charges of sloppy standards, charlatanism, and outright fraud.

Given the volume of national organizations suddenly mounting the supplement quality stage, one might assume, in Jimmy Durante's timeless words, that "Everyone wants to get into the act." But the newest rehearsal announcements should give both fans and critics of dietary supplements some pleasure, even if the cast of characters is not widely known.

Act one: Scripting reference materials

Among the most obscure additions to the cast of supplement quality actors is the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), known to a small coterie of "hard science" fans for its work in setting standards in industries as diverse as atomic energy and chemicals. So why does a troupe of physicists and biologists trained in the classical drama of science and technology seek to play a role in the "daytime soap opera" of dietary supplements?

"Supplements are here and are not going to fade way. There is a need to keep the science moving, so we need to take a team approach on different fronts," says Bill Obermeyer, research director at ConsumerLab.com. Obermeyer recently chaired a NIST-sponsored section of a quality conference in Bethesda, MD, attended by scientists and supplement industry quality managers.

The selection of Obermeyer to lead such a conference is in itself noteworthy in that he is a leading player in a web-centric testing organization whose publicly-available test reports are beginning to impact public and governmental perceptions of supplement quality.

In describing the conference, Obermeyer said: "NIST wants to take a lead in developing reference materials for botanical supplements, so that a wide variety of their chemical constituents can be looked at quantitatively. Having good reference materials makes it possible to develop proper methods for comparing similar substances."

Like high school Shakespeare, Obermeyer's comments seem obscure at first, but are reasonably easy to understand: NIST's charter is straightforward and apparently free of political and commercial influence. NIST has realized that supplementation has become a mainstay in millions of American households -- despite the slings and arrows of medical practitioners and the propensity of industry opportunists to market snake oil. NIST therefore wants to help define the science that will allow objective analysis of the active components of supplement products.


Act two: Reference materials
Like a fingerprint in a "whodunit" . . .

 

 

 

   
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(c) Copyright 1999-2003 Dietary Supplement Quality Initiative. For permission to reprint, please contact our editor.