The Food and Drug Administration doesn't test supplements for safety or purity. Consumers looking for assurances about the supplements they buy have a few new places to look for help.
ConsumerLab.com is a private company that tests dietary supplements. Vice President William Obermeyer, Ph.D., helped start the company.
Back in 1997, while working for the Food and Drug Administration, Obermeyer investigated the case of a woman who had been hospitalized after using a product that was said to contain a harmless plant named plantain. But Obermeyer's team discovered that the manufacturer of the product had swapped plaintain and instead used a toxic herb called Digitalis which can cause nausea, dizziness and heart attacks.
By the time Obermeyer's team discovered the problem, it had been going on for several years.
"We had several tons of adulterated material going through the United States," he says.
The adulteration went unnoticed, in part because the FDA doesn't test supplements until illnesses are reported. Manufacturers aren't required to test either.
Obermeyer says the idea behind ConsumerLab.com is to prevent these sorts of incidents. He says the goal is to identify materials in supplement products up front, not wait until they've caused an illness.
ConsumerLab.com has tested a few thousand products. On average, about 25 percent of the products fail. Obermeyer says that some don't meet labeling requirements, some don't contain what the label suggests, some products are discovered to be contaminated, and some don't dissolve properly.
The results are available to subscribers for an annual fee.
Obermeyer has started testing a round of Valerian supplements which are sold as sleep aides. His plan is to test 13 brands. He says it's hard for consumers to distinguish among so many brands.
To determine which brands are best, Obermeyer will hire a laboratory to perform a high-performance liquid chromatography test. This will determine the identity and the quality of the Valerenic Acid contained in the valerian products. He will also send samples to an EPA registered lab to determine whether any of the products is contaminated with lead or cadmium.
It will take about four months before results are ready. Some tests will be repeated if products are shown to be contaminated or bad ingredients are identified.
ConsumerLab.com has run into some criticism along the way. One concern is that the company also offers a service to supplement manufacturers who can pay to certify their products.
There are no indications that this has created any bias.
Supplement researcher Steve Bent, MD is an Assistant Professor at the University of California, San Francisco. He says that as long as the company remains open about its relationship with manufacturers, there shouldn't be a problem. Bent says that because there isn't any FDA or government agency that's testing these products, it's important to have independent companies doing the testing.
ConsumerLab.com isn't alone in testing supplements. Another logo beginning to appear on labels is a blue NSF mark, which signals that a product has been certified by the National Sanitation Foundation.
The NSF is an organization best known for certifying products such as food machinery and bottled water.