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Controlling the Quality of Supplements in Canada

What You Should Know, And What You Can Do

The quality and honesty of supplements was the “talk of the town” this February. The conversation was sparked by the filing of cease and desist orders to remove products from the market on February 2, 2015. The Attorney General of New York state (NY AG) filed these orders citing the laws against deceptive business practices, false advertising and fraud to “the big boys”, namely Walmart, Target, GNC and Walgreens.

The NY AG cited “Studies conducted by the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics at the University of Guelph and others have previously alerted the dietary supplement industry to the fact that it is not providing the public with authentic products without substitution, contamination or fillers.” Based on this, his office purchased samples at multiple outlets throughout New York State and sent them for DNA barcode testing. A total of three hundred ninety (390) tests were performed on seventy eight (78 samples) and the results were dismal. They found that only 21% contained DNA from the plant species listed on their labels and 79% came up empty for DNA related to their labels. The industry in the USA has responded by attacking, questioning the validity of DNA barcode testing, and denying wrongdoing.

Now that the background has been outlined, it is time we introduce ourselves. Both of us (the article authors) work at Pure-le Natural, a Canadian supplement manufacturer. Dr. Claude Gallant is the director of Quality Assurance and Joel Thuna is the General Manager. We are government certified and submit all of our products for quality testing. We utilize a combination of  High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC), the industry standard, Organoleptic (sensory testing) as well as DNA barcode testing, the method used by the NY AG and the University of Guelph. For full disclosure, we work with and submit our products for DNA barcode testing at the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics at the University of Guelph.

To clarify, DNA barcode testing is used to identify a particular plant species by its DNA,  the way a supermarket scanner distinguishes products using the black stripes of the Universal Product Code (UPC). Two items may look very similar to the untrained eye, but in both cases the barcodes are distinct.  It is the same technology used on TV crime shows to discover from whom the blood sample (or other bodily fluid) comes from.

As a consumer in Canada, what does this all mean to you? First off you are better protected here than you are in the USA. In Canada all supplements (yes ALL) are required by law to obtain a license from Health Canada before they can be sold to consumers. The government reviews all ingredients, dosages, claims and cautions prior to licensing. Additionally all supplements must be manufactured in a licensed facility which commits to quality standards in order to be certified GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices). In the USA, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) oversees supplements and facilities must register with them,  but FDA approval is not required before or after producing or selling dietary supplements.

Before you get too confident in the products on our Canadian shelves, remember that while our system is better than the one in the USA, we still rely on the honesty of manufacturers.  The University of Guelph tested bottles of popular supplements from twelve different brands including large national brands (all bought right here in Canada) and found that one third did not contain the ingredient listed on the label, and many were filled with unlisted ingredients.

What I find most disturbing about both the Guelph and New York tests are the unlisted ingredients they found in the products. As a consumer I would want to know why they are in the supplements and what the manufacturers are doing to prevent this contamination from happening again. As part of the licensing process, manufacturers are required to show Health Canada how they test for quality and how they clean to prevent contamination. These two strategies should greatly limit the potential even for a “whoops”. Surely these steps should be effective enough to produce results better than Guleph’s one third failure rate.

Besides the “whoops” scenario there is also the potential for fraud. The blame for this lies across the board. Most consumers want supplements at pennies a dose, most retailers push manufacturers to continually lower their costs (even when raw material costs rise) and many manufacturers want to improve their margins. This has led to most products (even from beloved Canadian brands) being sourced from overseas. As a manufacturer, we are inundated with hundreds upon hundreds of offers each month for all manner of tablets, capsules, powders and liquids both stock and made to order from Asia, the USA and North Africa. Bulk, bottled, labelled whatever we want - all at less than 10% of what it would cost to manufacture here. The trade-off – quality! They will provide any certificate and test report you desire. But are they real? None of the ones I have seen are worth the paper used to print them.

Ideally I want to see manufacturers use a combination of test methods (HPLC, DNA Barcode, Organoleptic and others) to confirm identity and quality. We are currently evaluating  a new kid on the block,  Matrix-Assisted Laser Desorption/Ionization Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometry (MALDI-TOF MS). MALDI-TOF MS is ideally suited for characterizing complex mixtures and is the mass spectrometry method of choice for analysis of natural products containing antioxidant polyphenols such as proanthocyanidins (cranberry, blueberry. grape, etc).

What can YOU do?

1.  If it seems too cheap to be true, it probably is. Remember when you buy that supplement bottle on sale that the store, the distributor, the manufacturer all need to make money (even when it is on sale). The empty bottle, label, cap and box it comes in all have costs. There are costs for shipping, (ingredients to manufacturer, product to distributor, product to store). Does the cost make sense? If it sounds too good to be true, how much do you think they spent on quality ingredients, quality assurance and testing? This doesn’t mean the most expensive bottle is best (they may just have the flashiest label and marketing budget), but it does mean the low cost one may be a poor choice.

2. Look for products that are government licensed (NPN number either on the label or on the bottle itself) as well as other certifications (kosher, halal, organic, Non-GMO, etc). The more a company invests in quality certifications, the more likely they are to invest in quality as a corporate mantra. Look for companies that invest in going beyond the government minimum standards by testing using new technologies. Every additional assurance a company uses provides just that, ASSURANCE.

3. Ask the store and manufacturer what quality assurances they have in place. Does the manufacturer test each batch of products? What tests are used? Does the store ask the manufacturer about quality standards and verification or do they just talk price, promotion and discounts? When it comes to what you put in your body and your health, are the store and the manufacturer investing in fancy labels and ads, or quality? Can they prove it?

Your best option is always to ask questions and educate yourself on what the answers mean. If a brand can't demonstrate it tests its products for quality, is this really the risk you want to take? If a store doesn't ask its suppliers about quality, do they really care about the quality of the products they sell and your health? If a store asks the right questions and only carries brands that have the right answers, that is where I want to shop and those are the products I want to use.