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Retailer's Testing Program Points To Quality Conundrum
29 Sept 2000
by Wyn Snow, Managing Editor

Imagine for a moment that your favorite pharmacy was sending bottles of aspirin to an independent testing lab -- either to assure that various brands meet minimal quality standards or as a good marketing strategy to distinguish itself as a quality leader from other pharmacies. Wouldn't it make you want to laugh -- or cry?

Vitacost.com, an on-line supplement retailer, is sending leading dietary supplement products to FDA-licensed independent testing labs -- and pulling brands that flunk off their shelves. The labs check the potency level of one or two key compounds. In order to pass, the actual level found by tests must be at least 90% of the amount stated on the label.

Test results available on website

Most useful of all, Vitacost.com is posting the actual lab reports on their website. Interested consumers can now find test results for

13 weight-loss products
8 St. John's wort products
5 glucosamine/chondroitin products

None of the weight-loss products contain ephedra. Brands tested included Atkins, Natrol, Nature's Answer, Nature's Herbs, Nature's Way, Thompson, Twinlab -- and the store's own brand called Nutraceutical Sciences Institute.

Vitacost.com plans to test women's health supplements and men's health supplements by October 2000.

Test results

Once again, testing shows enormous variation in the quality of dietary supplement products. While the majority passed with flying colors, too many are a waste of money.

Weight loss products included such diverse substances as 5-hydroxytryptophan, green tea extract, expanding-fiber products, chromium, and hydroxycitric acid. The laboratory tested the level of active ingredient(s) present -- either one or two in each product. Nine of the thirteen products contained at least 90% of the label amount, and some as high as 176%. The other four contained levels between 82% and 18%.

St. John's wort products were tested for hyperforin and hypericin levels, both of which are believed to contribute to its mood-enhancing properties. Hyperforin levels ranged from 114% of a reference value to 4%, while hypericin levels ranged from 123% to 61% of the reference value. None of the eight products contained more than 90% of the reference value of both compounds.

Glucosamine/chondroitin products were tested only for glucosamine levels, which ranged from 131% to 98%. Vitacost.com tested only one ingredient because it believes that "if one key ingredient tests at 95-105% of what is stated on the label, then the product was formulated with excellent quality control and any other ingredients listed on the label are most likely within the same range." We disagree. Chondroitin is more expensive than glucosamine -- and testing at ConsumerLab.com has shown that variations in chondroitin levels occur more often than in glucosamine.

Rating criteria

In addition to testing, Vitacost.com rates supplements from 5 (excellent) to 1 (poor) on the following five criteria:

  • superiority of nutrient levels (lab test results)
  • forms of nutrients used (which forms are most easily absorbed and used in the body)
  • expected overall effectiveness of the formulation (scientific research supporting the ingredients used)
  • safety of the formulation
  • value compared to similar products (relative price)

The average of the five areas is taken to give each brand an overall rating. In this case, ratings of tested products ranged from 5 (best) to 1.25 (worst).

Meeting the quality challenge

Consumers are confident that every tablet of aspirin on the shelf contains the stated quantity of aspirin because it has to meet rigorous standards of manufacturing and testing. Yet we don't have the same confidence in dietary supplements -- largely because randomized, independent, off-the-shelf testing shows a woeful lack of reliability among some ten to twenty percent of products -- and consumers have very limited access to reports that help them learn which brands flunk the tests.

For the increasing numbers of Americans who use dietary supplements, this lack of reliability among brands is appalling. A comprehensive system of independent quality testing is long overdue. Other industries have faced and solved this same challenge, interestingly in a way very similar to that chosen by Vitacost.com.

In choosing to go to a third-party laboratory certified to FDA standards, Vitacost.com is doing what insurers and producers in other industries have done as a matter of common sense for years. It's time for consumers to demand that the dietary supplement industry do so as well.

SupplementQuality.com applauds Vitacost.com's efforts to assure that all the products they sell are of sound quality. But their action highlights the huge consumer confidence vacuum in supplement quality. The time for producers to act is now.end-of-story



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