As it stands now, the industry lacks a familiar stamp of approval on labels that can let consumers know if the product in their hand stands out in any way from others on the shelf. This means companies that go the extra mile - those that invest heavily in research and development or oversee all sourcing of their ingredients - are not necessarily rewarded.
Many other consumer goods industries - such as dental products - have stamps of approval that can help point consumers to products with effective value-added ingredients, etc. The dietary supplement industry should apply a similar model, but with the added clout of a testing program behind the labels.
The obstacles frequently cited against this type of program are the cost of such an initiative, as well as what group or groups would assume the responsibility.
While the Natural Products Association, NSF International and US Pharmacopeia offer testing programs in the United States, they are either not yet wide enough in scope, or are not recognizable as label 'stamps of approval' to consumers.
The story in Europe is differs slightly with the finer points of the 2002 food supplements directive (especially vitamin and mineral) still to be hammered out. EU regulations. But even though industry may have its eye elseswhere, building consumer consumer confidence in should always be a priority.
As such, a universal testing program would require an advertising campaign to familiarize consumers with the concept so that they know what to look for on product labels.
And once consumers start to look for stamps of approval on bottles, industry will be compelled to follow all the necessary steps to get such certification. This will also buffer the effect of allegations in the industry that target some companies and not others.
In January, American ConsumerLab.com allegedly found high lead content in certain supplement brands, including a multivitamin for women sold by The Vitamin Shoppe. Traces of dangerous compounds are a genuine concern for the industry and until one independent body tests decides what constitutes 'dangerous' levels, the charges made by businesses such as ConsumerLab.com will continue to scare consumers without providing any straight forward solution.
An independent testing program would also urge companies to become accountable for their ingredients and oversee the entire supply chain before their product goes to market. This could dissuade companies from relying on suppliers that contract from other suppliers in such a way that the end manufacturer has never even set foot in the facility where its product may have originated.
Also, any companies that cut their active ingredients with undeclared fillers would also be punished or, at least, would lose out on the bonus of certification.
Adulterated versions of relatively expensive ingredients such as hoodia gordonii or saw palmetto would become less easy for companies to proffer. Sold as an appetite-suppressant, cactus-like plant hoodia is sourced from South Africa, while saw palmetto for supporting prostate health is sourced and wild-harvested from Florida.
Consumers would finally know that what is on the label is what is really in the bottle.
However, none of this will come about until the majority of the industry is motivated enough to invest in its own long term livelihood instead of letting some companies take the easy way out while others invest in science and the consumer is caught somewhere in the middle trying to decide which product is legitimate.
Clarisse Douaud is a reporter with NutraIngredients-USA.com and has lived and worked in Canada, Ireland, Argentina and France. If you would like to comment on the piece, send an email to: clarisse.douaud'at'decisionnews.com