Last year featured an unrelenting attack on dietary supplements by politicians and the media alike. Yet somehow, by the end of 2015, sales were actually up for botanicals—the subject of sting operations by the New York and Oregon attorneys general—as well as for supplements in general.
But before supplement companies pat themselves on the back for a bullet dodged, they must acknowledge that there’s some very troubling news afoot. According to a 2015 consumer survey from New Hope Network’s NEXT Data and Insights division, 19.5 percent of “core supplement users” have less trust in supplements than they did in 2013. Among “general consumers” of supplements, a slightly less-concerning 15.4 percent have less trust in these products than in 2013. But get this: A whopping 31.4 percent of general consumers say they have never trusted supplements.
Clearly, consumer distrust of supplement quality is a challenge supplement makers need to address. One way many try to build credibility is by featuring third-party certification seals on their product labels. But on-label seals present a challenging issue: Most supplement packages and labels are relatively small, with a lot of space devoted to the Supplement Facts panel and other required information. Thus, any certification seal is fairly small and hard to read.
The problem is compounded further. Even if a shopper does spot a seal, would she even recognize it? If she does, would she know what it means—assuming she believes it means anything at all? “Unlike legacy seals such as the Good Housekeeping seal or the UL [Underwriters Laboratory] seal on appliances, consumers don’t necessarily have a familiarity with or trust in the seals in the supplement marketplace,” says Frank Lampe, vice president of communications and industry relations for the United Natural Products Alliance.
Additionally, as UNPA has discovered, a plethora of official-looking good manufacturing practices seals appear on supplement products, but they have absolutely no testing or standards behind them. Certainly, the Food and Drug Administration has not provided for the creation of such seals. “It appears they are devised by companies to create the perception that their products are high quality,” Lampe says. “There are hundreds of first-party, self-made seals, some of which were designed to imitate legitimate third-party seals.” Besides creating confusion and leaving consumers wondering which seals to trust, first-party seals also degrade the value of supplement-certification efforts from legitimate bodies such as NSF and the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention.
There are, however, a handful of widely recognized quality seals that do mean something. One example is the International Fish Oil Standards Program’s IFOS seal, used specifically for omega-3 fish oil supplements. The program, run by Nutrasource Diagnostics, tests supplements for active ingredient content, contaminants and freshness. It lists the analytical results at ifosprogram.com.
“You can find out whether the omega-3 concentration is consistent with the label claim and whether it passes testing categories such as oxidation, heavy metals and PCBs,” says William Rowe, president and co-founder of IFOS. “This seal demonstrates a company’s commitment to transparency and quality. IFOS is a sign of excellence of our customers’ brands.”
The value of seals
Sure, pursuing bona fide certifications such as the IFOS seal costs companies money and resources. But such legitimate efforts help boost overall consumer perception of supplement quality. And as it turns out, consumers are willing to pay a premium for brands they view as mindful.
According to 2015 research from the Natural Marketing Institute, one in three Americans is willing to pay 10 percent more for food products made by companies that are certified as USDA Organic, GMO-free and environmentally preferable. (Other notable metrics in the survey include companies that pay their workers fairly, provide safe working environments and fight global warming.) “Exploring how consumers perceive dietary supplements, what and why they currently use, and even why they have stopped using certain supplements provides foundational insights,” says Maryellen Molyneaux, NMI managing partner. “These insights help build stronger brand equity, trust and innovative products and formats to address the needs of today’s consumer.”
In the larger consumer products market, NMI’s consumer survey revealed that consumers are more likely to purchase a product with these certifications:
• Energy Star (63 percent)
• Recycled logo (44 percent )
• USDA Organic (37 percent—a 29 percent change since 2007)
• Non-GMO Project Verified (33 percent)
• Fair Trade Certified (26 percent—a 15 percent change since 2007)
• Rainforest Alliance Certified (23 percent)
• UL Environment (21 percent)
• Marine Stewardship Council (13 percent—a 5 percent change since 2007)
"If the industry is serious about creating distance between responsible companies and outlier companies and products that tarnish the reputation of the industry," says Lampe, "then certification and a resultant seal are important components of an overall quality-assurance initiative."
Most popular supplement seals
There are five major seals found on supplement bottles, and each connotes different articles of information. These seals provide a snapshot of quality for label-reading consumers.
GMPs. Good manufacturing practices was established as part of the seminal Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. The idea is to facilitate safe and consistent product manufacturing, packaging and labeling. In the past year, the most commonly cited problems with companies failing FDA GMP inspections center around inadequate testing of ingredients coming into facilities and of finished products upon departure. This gets to the core of the adulteration and contamination problem that is all too common in today’s global ingredient supply.
“It costs quite a bit more to be GMP certified,” says Shabbir Akand, vice president of sales and marketing at NHK Laboratories in Santa Fe Springs, California*. “Testing costs have to be passed on to the unit cost of a product. It could be a 20 percent jump.”
USDA Organic. The holy grail of certifications, the stringent USDA Organic seal means a supplement employs production methods that are seen as the ultimate arbiter of clean, natural products. Certified-organic products have been created without the use of any unapproved chemical herbicides, pesticides or antibiotics, nor GMOs, nor sewage sludge on the fields. The National Organic Program also has rules around soil and water quality, livestock practices and food additives.
Non-GMO Project Verified. Whereas organic ingredients represent the best available, Non-GMO Project Verified products indicate the absence of the worst ingredients grown by man. Organic certification covers a production method, whereas non-GMO verification requires an actual test. Demand for this testing has grown because there’s nothing stopping genetically modified materials from contaminating an organically certified field.
Getting supplement ingredients Non-GMO Project Verified presents a unique challenge. Tests are conducted not just on the finished vitamin, but also down the supply chain. So, for instance, tests are run on the corn from whence a particular ingredient within that supplement was derived. Although the cost of testing ingredients is not that high, the real cost for supplement companies comes with staffers communicating through the entire supply chain, typically around the world and all the way to the farm.
“Companies that have taken the early adopter route, like New Chapter and MegaFood, have seen a reward for that,” says Kenneth Ross, CEO of Global ID Group, which does the testing for the Non-GMO Project. “As more and more companies get the seal, we’ll see how it plays in the marketplace. SPINS says the average company gets a 5 percent boost in sales.”
NSF. NSF is the most widely used third-party quality seal among supplements. It ensures product and ingredient safety by means of extensive testing and unannounced facility inspections to ensure high standards are being met. The NSF Certified for Sport seal goes further in that it ensures products do not contain any of the nearly 200 substances banned by major athletic organizations.
USP. The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention offers verification services for supplements and ingredients. These include conducting GMP audits, testing ingredients and finished products, and ensuring all documentation is up to date and reliable. Companies like NSF and USP act as stand-ins for the FDA, which cannot possibly inspect every supplement company and ingredient supplier every year.
At the end of the day, quality seals help communicate confidence that companies are producing trustworthy products. They are a key part of the industry’s greater effort to educate retailers, the media and consumers about the reliability of dietary supplements.