Supplement Quality, Stage Right . . .
Initiatives in Supplement Quality Standards
Wyn Snow, Managing Editor
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
one: Scripting reference materials
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?
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.
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.
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."
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
two: Reference materials
Like a fingerprint in a "whodunit" . . .