Independent quality testing for dietary supplements

An investigation by a ‘third party’ helps consumers and health-care professionals make informed decisions about products.

By John Russo Jr./

VICUS.COM (21 July 2000) — According to Mark Blumenthal, president of the American Botanical Council, 10 years ago the No. 1 question about herbal remedies and dietary supplements was, “Are these products safe?” 

Claims on labels

As of January 5, 2000, federal law allows dietary  supplement
manufacturers to make truthful claims on product labeling that say they maintain the healthful “structure or function” of the body, but they may not claim to treat diseases. Some say this decision means more confusion for consumers.

Source: Food and Drug Administration

Today, the main question is, “Which products do I trust?” This is an important issue for the dietary-supplements industry today as well as for consumers and health-care professionals. 

As the public becomes more skeptical of the industry, the increasing acceptance and growth of marketed dietary supplements are at risk of being curtailed. Therefore, it is essential to differentiate these products based on quality. 

It is here that the “third party” comes into play.

Defining the ‘third party’

First, it is important to define who the “third party” is, as referred to in this process. These are generally individuals who represent neither the producer nor the consumer (i.e., the first and second party).

This generally means they have no financial ties to the source of the product being tested. Therefore, they are less likely to be biased and more likely to design and implement testing procedures that will fairly and accurately assess the product.

The process of third-party review

The process by which dietary supplements are reviewed varies.

Frequently, a panel of unbiased scientists, nutritionists and physiologists will conduct the review. To do this, they may review the results of studies that have been published in journals. They generally start by assessing the claims for the product and the theory that supports these claims.

Based on these parameters, they will assess the scientific support for the claims as well as the safety of the substance and come to a conclusion regarding the value the product provides.

An alternative approach is to measure the contents of each product and compare the results to what is printed on the label. Either way, the findings are then presented in a report that should be written in easy-to-understand language.

A word of caution

Not all third-party sources are reliable sources of information. Neither should it be assumed that all third-party sources are qualified to render judgments on dietary supplements.

During the Nutracon 2000 conference in mid-July in Las Vegas, Nev., Blumenthal told a story about how good intentions can result in misleading and inaccurate information that does more to confuse consumers than help them make intelligent product choices. The story:

A local magazine that generally confines itself to covering the latest activities in the city it represents decided to commission a study for the purpose of publishing an article on “Herbal Remedy Rip-offs.” They hired a laboratory to assay the contents of a range of unrelated herbal remedies, but unfortunately, the laboratory was not qualified to conduct this type of work. Finally, the magazine neglected to have the results of the study reviewed by recognized experts in the field.

The result was an unjustified condemnation of the products tested, as well as the herbal remedies industry in general.

The value of third-party information

Third-party investigations, when conducted by qualified individuals in an unbiased manner, help everyone make more intelligent decisions about dietary supplements. Consumers become educated about the true value of these products as a group as well as the value of individual products. Manufacturers obtain important information that can be used to promote or upgrade their products. Health-care professionals benefit because they receive reliable information that can be used to advise their patients and clients on the best sources of supplements.

As stated by Tod Cooperman, M.D., who is president of, a Web-based company that provides results of independent tests of health products: “In the dietary  supplement  industry as well as every other industry, when a product is of high quality, consumers are more likely to repurchase that product and buy related products. They are also willing to pay a premium and recommend the product to others.”

The concept of third-party analysis to ensure quality control of dietary supplements is at an early stage of development. Early results suggest that it is badly needed., which has been in the quality testing business for about one year, has tested more than 100 products. One-third of these products failed to pass their tests.

If the dietary supplement industry follows the trends in other industries where quality testing is commonly performed, consumers and health-care professionals will rely on the results to make informed choices.

John Russo Jr., Pharm.D. is senior vice president of medical communications at He is a pharmacist and medical writer with more than 20 years of experience in medical education.



American Botanical Council

Ashton BA, Ambrosini GL, et al. Development of a dietary supplement database.Aust N Z J Public Health. 1997 Dec; 21(7):699-702.

Pelletier K. The Best Alternative Medicine. What Works? What Does Not?  New York (NY): Simon & Schuster; 2000.